François-Auguste-René Rodin was born on November 12, 1840, in Paris into a working-class family. As a child he largely taught himself and chose to start drawing at age 10. He attended an art school as a teenager for three years.
In 1857 he wanted to start studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris and submitted a clay sculpture with his application. He was turned down. He later applied twice more and still failed to gain entrance. He found work sculpting decorative objects and architectural details. In 1860 he created a bust of his father, his first.
In 1862 Auguste started participating in a newly created monastic order. Its leader, who could see that Auguste had talent as a sculptor and no calling as a monk, encouraged him to develop his talent outside the monastery. He went back to work as a decorator but took some classes that helped him to develop a keener attention to detail.
In 1864 a seamstress named Rose Beuret (1844-1917) became his companion. She gave birth to their only child, a son, in 1866.
Auguste found work sculpting architectural ornaments in Brussels from 1871 to 1877. In 1875 he was able to travel to Florence for two months. He felt liberated from the academic standards of his day to sculpt in his own style after seeing the sculptures of Donatello and especially Michelangelo.
Following his return to Paris, Auguste rented a flat on the Left Bank. There he lived with Rose, their son, and his ill and aging father. He worked as an assistant to other sculptors. He submitted models of Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in separate competitions for commissions, but failed to win.
He also created The Age of Bronze (1877). For it Auguste drew inspiration from Michelangelo's Dying Slave which he had studied in the Louvre. So lifelike was the result that people accused Auguste of simply creating the mold for the sculpture from a living man.
To create The Age of Bronze and other sculptures, Auguste would do all the creative work with a hand-sized lump of clay. His assistants would then make a plaster cast of it, then enlarge it and cast it again in bronze or carve it in marble.
Auguste next created St. John the Baptist Preaching (1878). Most art critics continued to discount his creativity but the sculpture came in third place at the official annual art exhibit. Even so, aspiring sculptors started seeking him out as a teacher and established sculptors began to esteem him as a peer.
In 1880, the 40-year-old Rodin got the break he needed. He won the state competition to create a doorway for a planned art museum. Although he worked on it sporadically for the next 37 years, he never finished it. What he did finish was cast in bronze only in the 1920s. The museum he designed it for was never built. The greatest benefit of the commission: the state provided Rodin with his own studio for the rest of his life.
He called this project The Gates of Hell (1880-1917). It is a monumental work, standing 20 ft tall, 13 feet wide, and 3 feet deep (6 x 4 x 1 m) and including over 180 figures. He took the name from the sign over the entrance to Hell in Dante's Inferno which says, “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” To create it Auguste drew inspiration from many sources including Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, and even Honoré de Balzac's The Human Condition. From it Auguste would later create The Thinker and The Kiss.
In 1883 Auguste met 18-year-old student and aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943). He created a sculpture of her in 1884 and for years she inspired as well as modeled and worked for him. Under his guidance she became an accomplished sculptor in her own right. The conviviality and intensity of their relationship varied wildly until it ended in 1898. Afterward he returned quietly to his long-suffering companion Rosa. Camille continued to create beautiful sculptures until committed involuntarily to an insane asylum by her family in 1913. Her family continued to insist on her commitment, despite the protests of her attending physicians, who insisted she was sane, until she died thirty years later in 1943.
In the 1880s Auguste took The Kiss from his Gates of Hell and developed it into a separate piece of art. Dante had placed two famous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, in Hell for committing adultery. They had fallen in love while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere only to be discovered and killed by her husband. The Kiss shows them embracing for their first one.
After working on The Thinker sporadically for ten years, Auguste completed it in 1889. His original sculpture was only 27.5 inches high (700 cm). Perched atop the lintel of the Gates of Hell, he meditates upon the lost souls there but not only with his mind. He does so with his whole body: furrowed brow, tight lips, taut back, curled toes.
In 1889 Auguste also finished The Burghers of Calais which he had started five years before. In 1347, Edward 3rd, ruler of England, was besieging Calais. He agreed to spare the city if they would send him their six leaders for execution. The leaders agreed to go, Edward's wife pleaded for their lives, and Edward spared them. The leaders of Calais wanted Auguste to create a sculpture that would suitably honor these brave men and inspire contemporaries to follow their example. Rather than idealizing the men, Auguste portrayed each one wrestling with their shared fate in his own way. As usual, some liked his novel approach but many didn't.
In 1889 Auguste received a commission to create a statue of Victor Hugo. Resistance to it was strong enough to prevent the plaster model from being cast in bronze until 1964.
In 1891 a writer's organization hired Auguste to commemorate Honoré de Balzac. As with all of his sculptures, he tried to create one which expressed the essential character of the person. His Honore is one of his most abstract statues. The writer's organization rejected it in 1898 and he returned their commission. It was finally cast in bronze in 1939.
After 1900 Auguste's fame grew internationally. Admirers included the writers Oscar Wilde and Ranier Maria Rilke and dancer Isadora Duncan.
After 53 years of steadfast companionship, Auguste married Rosa in 1917. She died two weeks later and he followed her later that year.
Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.