My favourite work of sculpture anywhere in the world is by Auguste Rodin and it depicts Honoré de Balzac, the great 19th century French novelist. A Society for Men of Letters in Paris wished to honour Balzac as its founder and Rodin was asked to create a monument. It was a huge challenge for him to represent someone of Balzac’s stature, both figuratively and literally.
Rodin adored Balzac’s novels and threw himself into the task – reading all the works, studying portraits and photographs, and even consulting Balzac’s tailor for measurements. He had a frock coat made to those measurements, dipped it in plaster and left it to dry on an upright dummy. He made endless studies of Balzac, in the nude, with a cane, in a monk’s habit (although far from ‘monkish’ in his habits, the writer often wore a monk’s robe as he worked), in a dressing gown. The Society grew impatient with his slow progress (it took him seven years to finish it), and a quarrel occurred. When Rodin finally exhibited a plaster cast of his proposed statue, the Society rejected it, calling it an obese monster and “a giant foetus”. They gave the commission to another artist.
Rodin’s friends launched a protest, but he wanted to avoid even more scandal. “If truth is doomed to die”, he wrote, “my Balzac will be destroyed by later generations. But if truth is eternal, I predict that my statue will gain acceptance … From the day I created it, I became a new man.” He kept the plaster cast in his back garden, where Monet felt it was a thing of awe and magic. It was only cast in bronze in 1937, twenty-two years after Rodin’s death.
Today it is sometimes considered the first truly modern sculpture and was praised by Sir Kenneth Clark as the most important work of sculpture since Michelangelo.
Rodin aimed to portray Balzac’s persona, rather than his likeness. You can see two versions of it in Paris (one at the Rodin Museum) and there’s one in Melbourne, Australia. I find it an incredibly powerful statue, an amazing concentration of expressive features and ungainly body. It is an evocation of a visionary and literary genius, created by an artistic genius.
Have you seen this statue? Tell me by leaving a comment here.