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3 October 2015 / leggypeggy

Thinking about the works of sculptor, Auguste Rodin

The Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell, commissioned in 1880 for a decorative arts museum that was never built. Note The Thinker near the top, and The Three Shades at the very top

The Three Shades

A life-size version of The Three Shades. They point to the inscription that reads ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’

Artworks by French sculptor Auguste Rodin hold a special interest for most Canberrans, probably because our National Gallery of Australia has a set of his famous The Burghers of Calais.

We’re frequent visitors to the gallery’s sculpture garden and never fail to admire these colossal statues that represent a group of 14th century citizens of the northern French town of Calais. The six men had offered themselves as hostages to induce the English to lift a siege during the Hundred Years War, and spare their starving city.

Years later, when Calais was planning to tear down its medieval walls, the town decided to erect a monument reflecting its ancient history. Rodin pursued the commission eagerly and won it in 1884.

I’m not sure how many sets of his bronze burghers have been cast (possibly 12), but we were delighted today to see a complete set—along with many prototypes—in the Rodin Museum (Musée Rodin) in Paris.

Hôtel Biron

Hôtel Biron and surrounding gardens. This main museum of Rodin’s work is currently being renovated and is not open to the public

Well, we weren’t actually in the museum proper—the Hôtel Biron—which Rodin used as his workshop from the early 1900s until his death in 1917. At present, the main museum is closed for renovations, but the garden is open, as is another building with a temporary exhibition of about 140 pieces of Rodin’s plaster casts and other studies.

The top drawcards for most visitors are the burghers ensemble, The Gates of Hell and The Thinker. But many other items are displayed with accompanying explanations—in French and English—so Poor John and I were able to read all the details.

I hadn’t known that a small version of The Thinker was originally created as part of The Gates of Hell, which depicts ‘The Inferno’, the first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The massive gate sculpture is 6 metres high, 4 metres wide and 1 metre deep, and has 180 figures. Some are as small as 15 centimetres high (6 inches) and others range up to one metre.

The Directorate of Fine Arts commissioned the work in 1880 and expected it to be delivered by 1885, and used as the showy entrance for the planned Decorative Arts Museum.

The museum was never built, but Rodin kept working on the gates until his death. He enlarged many of the individual parts, including The Thinker, to life-size sculptures in their own right.

The Thinker, plaster

Plaster version of The Thinker

The Thinker, bronze

Bronze version of The Thinker

As we went through the exhibition we got a distinct impression that a lot of Rodin’s work was never completed, completed late or a source of criticism. In fact, Poor John wondered if Rodin ever got paid for his work, but Libby and I thought that he must have had a patron or received advances or both.

Nevertheless, the scandals and furore are interesting.

Rodin spent years working on a monument to Victor Hugo, the famous French author who wrote, among other things, Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Head of Victor Hugo

Head of Victor Hugo. I never got a pic of the seated monument 😦

The saga began in 1883 when Hugo refused to pose for Rodin. Instead the artist spent hours one day on the author’s veranda, making 60 sketches of the author, who paced the garden at a distance.

After Hugo died in 1885, the French government commissioned Rodin to design a monument to him.

Rather than a routine approach, Rodin depicted the author in exile, seated among the rocks of Guernsey. This first effort was deemed to lack ‘clarity’ and the ‘silhouette was muddled’. It was unanimously rejected by those commissioning it.

Rodin tinkered with this and other versions on Hugo (including a nude) over the next decade before abandoning the project completely. The seated version was first cast in bronze in 1964.

The plaster sculpture of French author, Honoré de Balzac, drew criticism from the moment it was first unveiled to the commissioning organisation, the Societé des Gen de Lettres in Paris in 1898.

By then, Rodin had worked on the sculpture since 1891, rather longer than the 18 months allowed for in the original agreement. That was because Rodin had become obsessed by the author’s works and history.

Monument to Balzac

Monument to Balzac

After reading all of Balzac’s works and carrying out almost 50 studies on the man who died in 1850, Rodin decided to create a sculpture that captured the author’s ‘persona’ rather than his image.

While the critics were not impressed and the societé rejected the sculpture, Rodin’s contemporaries, such as Cézanne, Monet and Toulous-Lautrec, liked it.

The sculpture was not cast in bronze until 22 years after Rodin died. Today many castings are displayed around the world and the work is often considered the first truly modern sculpture.

Near the end of his life, Rodin donated sculptures, drawings and reproduction rights to the French government.

I have a story to tell about Rodin’s mistress, Camille Claudel, which I’ll tell when I do a post about the two guided walks we did in Paris.

In the meantime, enjoy a drink on me—limoncello cocktail.

Rodin's workshop

A picture of a picture of Rodin’s workshop in the Hôtel Biron


Leave a Comment
  1. Yvonne / Oct 3 2015 6:37 pm

    I sure didn’t know all that about Rodin. I only ever thought Rodin=The Thinker. Thank you for the education.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. suchled / Oct 3 2015 6:42 pm

    After that magic tour I’ll have a double limoncello thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Oct 3 2015 7:44 pm

      Me too, only I left the bottle at home in Australia.


      • suchled / Oct 3 2015 7:51 pm

        Tell me when you get home and I will send a bottle of my special homemade one. But you have to tell me what ABV you want.


      • leggypeggy / Oct 3 2015 7:55 pm

        So what are my options? I probably don’t need a shot of firewater.


  3. Jane / Oct 3 2015 8:34 pm

    Well, this was certainly an education in Rodin for me. It was interesting to read about his difficulties trying to sculpt Victor Hugo. I’m looking forward to reading about mistress! 🙂


    • leggypeggy / Oct 3 2015 8:35 pm

      It was an education for me too, but the mistress bit is good fun as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Laurie / Oct 4 2015 4:10 am



  5. lambieland / Oct 4 2015 4:18 am

    I love your blog posts! They are informative, the photography is wonderful and they keep me reading to the end. All good signs of a great site Peggy! The gates of hell is a stunning piece I had not seen before. (I don’t get out much!)


    • leggypeggy / Oct 4 2015 9:43 am

      Oh my goodness, thanks for the kind praise. As for the gates of hell, I hadn’t seen them either, so I guess that means neither of us has had to go through them. That’s a relief. 🙂


  6. luckyjc007 / Oct 4 2015 12:42 pm

    Wonderful post! Thanks so much for sharing. Love the photos you’ve added. 🙂


    • leggypeggy / Oct 4 2015 5:26 pm

      Thank you for stopping by and enjoying the post.


  7. julioc / Oct 5 2015 1:53 am

    I’ve been there and loved it. Great reading.


  8. blondieaka / Oct 6 2015 9:13 pm

    Great post..I have always liked Rodin but it’s nice to know a bit more about the man behind The Thinker…sad to that like many others their brilliance is not acknowledged until many decades after their demise 🙂


  9. JoelF / Oct 7 2015 7:20 pm

    Wow, these are works of arts. Beautiful post.


  10. yeahanotherblogger / Oct 8 2015 1:39 am

    Fine article, Peggy.
    I live near Philadelphia, where there is a Rodin Museum. I haven’t been there in years, but have placed it on my to-do list.


    • leggypeggy / Oct 9 2015 7:03 am

      Would love to hear what you think of your nearby museum.


  11. Curious to the Max / Oct 8 2015 1:20 pm

    Wonderful. Rodin is one of my favorites. Thanks for the guided tour!!!


    • leggypeggy / Oct 9 2015 7:04 am

      My pleasure. Now I need to post something about the Rodin statues in Canberra.


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