Childhood & Early Life
Auguste Rodin was born as François-Auguste-René Rodin to Jean-Baptiste Rodin and Marie Cheffer on November 12, 1840 in Paris, France. He had an elder sister, Maria.
Born in a family of meagre means, young Rodin couldn’t afford going to school. As such, he was mostly self-educated. As soon as Rodin entered teenage, he enrolled himself at Petite École, studying drawing and painting.
In 1857, Rodin tried to enter the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts but failed. He attempted twice again but was rejected on each occasion. Dejected, he took to working as a craftsman and ornamenter. During this phase, Rodin indulged in producing decorative stonework and architectural embellishments.
The tragic death of his sister in 1862 deeply impacted Rodin. Briefly, he left his artistic career and instead joined the Catholic order, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.
Encouraged by Saint Peter Julian Eymard, Rodin resumed his art life, working as a decorator. He trained under Antoine-Louis Barye, who immensely influenced Rodin on the detailing aspect of art.
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In 1864, Rodin entered the art studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse and made his first submission in the official Salon exhibition. However, his work was rejected.
Until 1870, Rodin worked as the chief assistant for Carrier-Belleuse, designing roof decorations and doorway embellishments. Briefly, he served in the army during the Franco-Prussian War before re-joining Carrier-Belleuse in Belgium, working on ornamentation of the Brussels’ public buildings.
In 1875, Rodin visited Italy. The trip left the artist startled by the artistic geniuses that prevailed at that time. The works of Michelangelo and Donatello left a deep impact on Rodin, rescuing him from the academicism of his work experience. He travelled to Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice before returning to Brussels.
The visit to Italy stirred the inner artist in Rodin, who until then was too engaged with his decorative stonework to actually realize the fact that art was more than just academicism. The experience helped him develop a personally expressive style, thus breaking the monotony.
Returning to Brussels, Rodin started working on his first original work, named ‘The Vanquished’. Today popularly known as ‘The Age of Bronze’, it was his first life-size male sculpture whose realism earned Rodin lots of attention and accusation. However, it did release him from obscurity and put him into limelight.
In 1877, Rodin returned to Paris. Three years later, he was offered the position of part time designer by his former master, Carrier-Belleuse. Meanwhile, Rodin took part in various competitions but was rejected each time.
Rodin’s artistic acumen earned him a commission from Edmund Turquet, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts, to create a bronze door for the then soon-to-open Museum of Decorative Arts in 1880.
Though the Museum of Decorative Arts was never completed and his work remained essentially unfinished until his death, the project became one of the most important works of his lifetime. Eventually known as ‘The Gates of Hell’, the monumental sculpture by Rodin comprised of scenes from Dante’s Inferno. It gave Rodin the financial security to pursue artistic freedom.
‘The Gates of Hell’ comprised of 186 figures and became the monumental base or framework for much of Rodin’s later works. It was out of it that Rodin created independent sculptures, figurines and groups. Some of his most celebrated independent works out of it include, ‘The Thinker’, ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Three Shades’, ‘Ugolino’, ‘Fugit Amor’, ‘The Falling Man’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’.
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While working on ‘The Gates of Hell’, Rodin took up a commission to supervise a course for sculptor, Alfred Boucher. It was while administering the course that Rodin befriended a talented sculptor Camille Claudel, a friendship that was to last for long. The two influenced each other greatly and the friendship transformed into a passionate relationship.
Amongst the other commissions that Rodin worked on while pursuing ‘The Gates of Hell’ commission was ‘The Burghers of Calais’. During the Hundred Years’ War, King Edward III besieged the town of Calais. In order to safeguard the town, six men barefooted and bareheaded, sacrificed themselves as detainees to the King. Taking cue from this event, Rodin created ‘The Burghers of Calais’ sculpture.
Made in bronze and weighing more than two tonnes, ‘The Burgher of Calais’ was one of the most celebrated and acclaimed works by Rodin. Despite being completed in 1889, it was only in 1895 that the monument was displayed to public. Later in 1913, a bronze statue of the Calais group was added to the sculpture depicting insistence by the Queen to show mercy on the men.
In 1889, Rodin was commissioned to create a monument for Victor Hugo. Just like his previous work, the monument was far away from conventional standards and instead dealt with the subject of artist and muse.
In 1891, he was commissioned to create a monument for French author Honoré de Balzac by Société des Gens des Lettres. The work was however quite different from Rodin’s former works, in terms of taste and perception. It broke the conventional ties and depicted Balzac partly draped with deep eyes and expressions that conveyed courage, labour and struggle. Due to the same, the Société rejected his work.
Rodin’s large collection of sculptures and drawings were displayed in Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. The exhibit further glorified his artistic reputation as he started receiving orders for making busts of prominent people from around the globe including United States, England, Germany and France.
In 1903, he served as the elected president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, replacing James Abbott McNeill Whistler, after the latter’s death.
During much of his later life, Rodin turned his creative attention to themes of masculinity and femininity. He concentrated on dance studies and came up with a collection of erotic drawings.
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Personal Life & Legacy
Rodin first met his future partner, Rose Beuret, a young seamstress, in 1864. The two shared an intimate bond almost instantly and Beuret eventually became his companion for life. It was only after fifty-three years into their relationship that the two married on January 29, 1917. In 1866, however, they were blessed with a Rodin’s only child, a son Auguste Eugene Beuret.
In 1883, Rodin befriended Camille Claudel. The friendship soon progressed as the two shared a passionate yet stormy relationship. She served as his inspiration for many of his figures.
In 1889, Rodin’s personal life underwent a major turmoil as both Beuret and Clauddel became increasingly impatient with his double standards. Despite living with Claudel, Rodin refused to bow out of his relationship with Beuret, who mothered his son. It was only in 1898 that Claudel and Rodin separated. Subsequently, Claudel underwent nervous breakdown that led to her death.
Though Beuret was essentially Rodin’s love companion, her experience of marital bliss was short-lived. Just two weeks after marrying Rodin, she breathed her last on February 16, 1917.
Rodin suffered from influenza that eventually weakened his health. He died on November 17, 1917, at his villa in Meudon, Île-de-France, on the outskirts of Paris, due to congestion of the lungs.
Posthumously, he was made commander by the French Légiond'honneur and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford.
Due to the changing aesthetic value, the popularity of Rodin profoundly declined in the decades following his death. It was only in 1950 that his reputation yet again zoomed as he became recognized as the most important sculptor of the modern era. He has played an influential role for numerous artists and sculptors of the modern era.