The Rodin Museum in Paris
Rodin is the sculptor who brought us the Thinker, the Gates of Hell, the Kiss, and the Burghers of Calais. A museum dedicated to his work re-opened early 2016 in the 7th arrondissement in Paris and showcases his best and most famous works as well as many pieces you may have never heard of but will astound you with the emotions they will bring out in you. In this episode Elyse describes why this museum is so important and why both Elyse and Annie recommend that you go visit it next time you’re in Paris.
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The Rodin Museum in Paris
Where Is the Rodin Museum?
This museum is on rue de Varenne at the Hôtel Biron, close to Les Invalides and Napoleon’s Tomb. This makes it very accessible, and in the middle of a lovely upper class neighborhood. The house where the museum is housed is a large classical mansion surrounded by a beautiful garden and two wading pools.
From Mansion to Squat to Personal Residence
Elyse explains how for years the house was in the hands of rich individuals for many years and then from 1811 until 1904 the Sisters of the Sacred Heart moved it and turned it into a convent school for young ladies. The sisters didn’t use the grounds and reorganized the inside of the house to suit their needs, but they left the grand staircase alone. After 1904 and the law of the building is empty and artists the likes of Matisse, Isadora Duncan, Rilke, and Jean Cocteau who was extremely young at the time squat the building! Rilke became a secretary to Rodin and when Rodin saw the house he loved the place especially since he could put his outdoor sculpture in the garden. Rodin made arrangements so that he could officially occupy the space and lived there until his death in 1917.
How this Mansion Became a Museum
As he got older Rodin made a deal with the French government that he would give away his entire collection as well as all his papers to the French government if they would turn this mansion and gardens into a museum. Rodin died in 1917 and this museum opened in 1919 and it has been the Rodin museum ever since.
The Exhibit at the Museum
This museum attracts 7000,000 visitors per year and has all of Rodin’s major works. Bronze pieces are in the garden, plasters are indoor. There are as many as a dozen copies of Rodin’s major bronze sculptures which can be seen all over the world, many of them in the US. These are all originals. The building has been renovated many times over the years and the most recent renovation happened in 2015 with the museum re-opening in January 2016. There is a lovely café on-site. The museum is organized in chronological order so you can see the progression of his oeuvre and maturation.
The Story of The Burghers of Calais
This sculpture features six men who have ropes around their necks, are dressed in rags and are prisoners. We get the impression that they are being led off. The work was commissioned at the end of the 1800s after the war with Prussia. The Prussians had invaded France and actually took Paris. In 1870 and 1871 there was a terrible war and this is when the Commune happened in Paris. The country was almost in a civil war because there were people who were ready to comply with the wishes of the invaders and others who wanted to resist. For 80 years from the French Revolution on there was constant upheaval. Starting in the 1880s, the beginning of peaceful times in France, there was a strong artistic push to give people a sense of patriotism. The city of Calais, which had been going back and forth between English hands and French hands for many centuries, decided to commission a sculpture by Rodin in honor of the pride of its heroes. The heroes here refer back to the 100 Years War, not to the war with the Prussians. In the 1300s Calais was fought over and taken over by the English and they kept Calais for almost 200 years until it was taken back by the French at the time of Joan of Arc. This statue represents the heroism of the French Burghers of Calais who surrendered in order for their fellow-citizens of Calais to be spared.
When Rodin went to Italy in his 30s he was inspired by the work of Michelangelo and we can see that in his work. Michelangelo revolutionized sculpture in his days by showing people coming out of a mass of rock and left unfinished, giving a sense of emergence out of nature. Sculpture in the XIXth century was very academic, polished and stiff and that is not something Rodin wanted to emulate.
Rodin was a passionate man grounded in his emotions. We can see this in the way he represents people. The hands and feet of his characters are always over sized and powerful, as were his own hands and feet. His art is strong and angry. The faces are all realistic, sometimes tortured looking. Rodin is considered to be the father of modern sculpture in France and possibly in the Western world because his works expresses strong personal emotions. The message of strength and purpose comes through loud and clear as you visit this museum.
His most famous pieces are the biggest ones, perhaps because they are made of bronze, have been reproduced, and can be seen in many locations. It could also be because some of them are out in public where anyone can see them, not just museum-goers. His large pieces let viewers sence his passion, power, imagination, and egoism too. He had an uncanny ability to convey all these messages through his work.
La Cathédrale Rodin
The Gates of Hell
At the end of the 1880s when Rodin made the Gates of Hell, he was already famous. He was commissioned to create those doors for a new building that was to be the home of decorative arts in Paris. Rodin based the Gates of Hell on Dante’s vision of hell. It’s a massive piece that is 8 meters by 7 meters. The characters that are part of this piece come out at you, startling and engaging the viewer. But the building these doors were supposed to adorn was cancelled and Rodin never cast this piece even though he worked on it for two decades. It was eventually cast in bronze, but after his death. When working on a monumental piece, most artists do small individual studies and eventually put everything together. Rodin did the opposite. He conceived of this massive piece in drawings and over many years took out parts of his massive plan for the Gates of Hell and turned them into individual sculptures on a large-scale. For instance at the Rodin Museum they display a large sculpture called the Three Shadows or Three Fates not far from the Gates of Hell. A smaller size of the Three Fates is at the top of the Gates of Hell also. Rodin placed them in the Gates of Hell but also blew them up bigger as a separate sculpture. Rodin did this with many pieces that you will see through the park and inside the museum.
Rodin the Seductor
Rodin had many affairs with many women, including one with the hugely talented sculptor Camille Claudel. When their relationship ended after about 10 years she went a bit crazy. Her upper-class family didn’t take kindly to her behavior and locked her up in an insane asylum when she was in her late 40s. Some of the work at the museum is now labelled Rodin and Camille Claudel. Rodin showed a propensity to use the women in his life for inspiration and when he squeezed out everything he wanted, he would toss them aside. We feel there is much to admire about Rodin, but not that aspect of his life.
Rodin is buried in Meudon (where he also owned a home) and is buried next to a woman named Rose who became his mistress when she was 20 and he was 24 and who he only married months before their death, mostly because she had remained faithful to him through all the affairs and turbulent life. They had one child together who he never recognized.
How Rodin Trained
Rodin was born in Paris to a poor family. He was very near-sighted which led him to do poorly in school because of his bad vision and the fact that his parents weren’t able to find a solution for him. He was poorly educated and couldn’t write French very well. His mother realized that he was good at drawing (where he could get his face close to the page) and at age 12 he was sent to learn drawing and sketching. This is where he learned various techniques and was introduced to clay sculpture. Rodin worked really hard to try to get admitted at the Fine Arts school in Paris, he passed the drawing exam but not the sculpture exam! This was the 1860s and he apprenticed with sculptors (none of them famous today), but he didn’t ever get admitted in any art school. Eventually his work was noticed by some collectors and that’s how he started a career of his own right. He became very famous and was much appreciated in France.