A black and white photograph of Rodin with a grey beard, wearing a hat and coat, standing in a room of sculptures

10 things you might not have known about Rodin

Publication date: 27 November 2017

To celebrate our special exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, here are 10 things you might not know about the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

10 things you might not have known about Rodin

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is perhaps the most famous sculptor of the modern era. The popularity of The Kiss and the universality of The Thinker alone make him globally renowned. But here are a few facts about this radical sculptor who set a new direction for art with his work.

1. His most famous sculptures didn't start out as individual pieces

The Kiss and The Thinker are among Rodin's most famous works, but they were originally small figures created to sit on monumental gates, which had been commissioned for the entrance to a new decorative arts museum in Paris.

Sculpture of a gate depicting Dante's Inferno, 'The Thinker' sits above the door panels
The Gates of Hell. Plaster, 1900. Musée d'Orsay. Image © agence photographique du Musée Rodin. Photo: Jerome Manoukian.

The museum was never built but Rodin continued to work on The Gates of Hell for years. The sculptures which sat on it were used as the basis for several further works of art by the artist.

2. The Kiss represented the doomed lovers from Dante's Inferno

Although the sculpture is often thought of today in romantic terms, it didn't start out that way. In the epic poem Divine Comedy, Dante meets the lovers Paolo and Francesca in his travels around hell. They had been murdered by Francesca's husband (Paolo's brother) after he discovered the lovers together. The sculpture sees them at the moment just before death, lost in reckless passion.

Two photographs of sculptures, on the left, 'The Kiss' with two lovers in a passionate embrace, on the right, 'The Thinker', seated nude, chin resting on hand, elbow on knee
Left: The Kiss. Plaster, 1888–1898. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Adam Rzepka. Right: The Thinker. Plaster, 1881–1882. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Herve Lewandowski.

3. The Thinker has been known by many different names

This famous figure from The Gates of Hell initially represented Minos, judge of the damned in the Divine Comedy, and was later supposed to represent the poet Dante. It was given the name The Thinker not by the artist, but by foundry workers, who thought it looked similar to a statue of Lorenzo de Medici by Michelangelo nicknamed Il Penseroso (The Thinker).

4. Rodin never carved in marble

He sometimes posed for the camera with hammer and chisel in hand, but his practice was to model in clay for others to carve in marble or cast into bronze.

Portrait of bearded man, Rodin, seated on a chair, arms crossed
Portrait of Rodin. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Jean de Calan.

5. He had many lovers

Rodin's personal charm and fame attracted many female admirers. Among them were talented artists, dancers and actresses. In 1883, Rodin met the 18-year-old Camille Claudel. The two formed a passionate but stormy relationship. Claudel was the model for many of Rodin's figures but she was also a talented sculptor in her own right and the two artists influenced each other greatly. Claudel worked for many years in Rodin's studio and assisted him with his commissions. She later accused Rodin of stealing her ideas and even of plotting to kill her. She also destroyed much of her own work at this time. Thought at the time to be suffering from mental illness, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she spent the rest of her life.

Two women, one on a raised platform working on full-size sculpture of nude, the other in the background working on a smaller piece
Camille Claudel and her friend Jessie Lipscombe sculpting in the studio on 117 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris, 1887. Photo: William Elborne. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Jean de Calan.

Later, in 1904, the Welsh artist Gwen John began to model for Rodin when she was 28 years old, and became his lover. Their liaison lasted ten years, but her passion was overwhelming – she wrote over a thousand letters to him – and he had to distance himself from her. Throughout his life and other loves, he had a long relationship with seamstress Rose Beuret beginning in 1864, and they had a child together. He married her two weeks before her death in February 1917. He died later that year.

6. He drew inspiration from ancient Greek art

Rodin had a collection of over 6,000 antiquities and in 1900 he built a museum at Meudon to house his growing collection. At night, by lamplight, he would show visitors the subtle modelling of the carved marble.

Photo of studio with nude sculptures, and smaller objects on shelves and in cabinet
Rodin's collection of antiquities at Meudon. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Jean de Calan.

In summer, Rodin brought Greek sculptures into the garden and placed them on funerary altars. He said:

I love the sculptures of ancient Greece. They have been and remain my masters.

7. Rodin loved the British Museum!

As he was so inspired by the art of antiquity, perhaps this is unsurprising. In 1881, aged 41, Rodin came to London and made the first of many visits to the British Museum. It was a time when the Parthenon sculptures were at the height of their fame. Although Rodin had already studied the sculptures from books, plaster casts and some originals in the Louvre, his encounter with them in the British Museum had a profound effect and influenced a number of his works.

Black and white photo of Parthenon sculptures, formally dressed man and child standing in front
The Parthenon sculptures as they were displayed in the British Museum at the time Rodin would have seen them, c. 1890.

He returned to them again and again. He would lop off the heads and limbs from his own sculptures in order to make them more like the archaeological ruins of the past, and in the process created a new genre of art – the headless, armless torso.

8. Rodin's talent wasn't instantly recognised

He failed to get into the École des Beaux-Arts school in Paris three times. Instead he attended the Petite École with its focus on decorative arts. He worked for several years for the prominent sculptor Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse where he learnt skills necessary for running a large studio. It was not until Rodin was 40 that he received his first major commission – The Gates of Hell.

9. His works often caused controversy

His sculpture The Age of Bronze was so lifelike that he was accused of having cast the work directly from a living model. He made his next sculptures deliberately larger than life to avoid these accusations again.

Nude man in casual stance, one hand resting on hair, head tilted up and to side
The Age of Bronze. Bronze, first exhibited 1877. Cast made by Fonderie Alexis Rudier before 1916. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Christian Baraja.

But that's not all... When a marble version of The Kiss commissioned by the collector Edward Percy Warren went on display in Lewes Town Hall in 1913 it caused so many objections that it had to be surrounded by a railing and draped with a sheet! It later entered the Tate collection.

10. Today, he is regarded as a great artist, but at the time he was seen as a radical

Rodin's plaster sculpture The Man with the Broken Nose (1863–1864) broke one freezing night in his studio leaving a hole at the back of the head. Overnight it seemed to have aged 2,000 years to become an archaeological fragment. Embracing this accident he decided to enter this 'mask' at the 1865 Salon.

Two photographs showing front and back of sculpture of head of man, back is hollowed out
Rodin's The Man with a Broken Nose. Bronze, modelled 1863–1864, cast 1925. © Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was too radical for its time. It was considered incomplete and the Salon refused to show it. However, according to Rodin himself:

That mask determined all my future work; it's the first modelled piece I did. Ever since, I've tried to see my works from all possible points of view and to draw them in every one of their aspects. That mask has been on my mind in every thing I have done.

Rodin's anticipation of developments in art meant that he led rather than followed trends. His work set the scene for 20th-century Modernism and today he remains one of the world's most famous sculptors.

The special exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece ran from 26 April to 29 July 2018. Sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In collaboration with Musée Rodin, Paris.