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Rodin - 100 Years

Commemorating the centennial of the French master’s death
William H. Robinson, Senior Curator of Modern Art
August 22, 2017
Natural Backdrop The initial installation of the east wing glass box in 2008 featured Rodin sculptures, including The Age of Bronze. The exhibition Rodin—100 Years again takes advantage of this beautiful view.

The initial installation of the east wing glass box in 2008 featured Rodin sculptures, including The Age of Bronze. The exhibition Rodin—100 Years again takes advantage of this beautiful view.


Widely regarded as the founder of modern sculpture, Auguste Rodin (18401917) remains one of the most consequential figures in the history of art. Inspired by great artists of the past, especially Michelangelo, he viewed the human form as the ideal vehicle for conveying inner emotion and complex symbolic thought. Through hollows and mounds, light and darkness, his muscular forms seem to vibrate with inner life. Rodin’s willingness to experiment, combined with his ability to convey both physical and psychological forces, revived sculpture from stale academic conventions and brought the medium to new heights. 

As a participating member of Centenaire Auguste Rodin—an international series of installations, traveling exhibitions, and programs commemorating the centennial of the artist’s death—the CMA is sharing its magnificent Rodin collection with new audiences and scholars worldwide (see #rodin100.org). Rodin—100 Years highlights selections from the museum’s collection of more than 40 works by the French master. Of particular importance are sculptures acquired directly from the artist, including an exceptionally fine cast of The Age of Bronze and the monumental Thinker near the museum’s south entrance. An accompanying exhibition publication reveals new information about the March 1970 bombing of The Thinker.

The Thinker, 1880, cast c. 1916. Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). Bronze; 182.9 x 98.4 x 142.2 cm. Gift of Ralph King, 1917.42. Shown here on the museum’s south entrance steps during the 1928 dedication of the Fine Arts Garden.

Thanks to the generosity of local collectors and benefactors, the museum acquired eight Rodin sculptures within a year of its opening in June 1916. By establishing contact with the artist during his lifetime, these civic-minded donors played a key role in laying the foundation for the museum’s distinguished collection of Rodin works, beginning with The Thinker. Initially installed in the rotunda in January 1917, several months later it moved to its permanent home near the south entrance steps. Mr. and Mrs. Ralph King of Cleveland acquired the work from the artist in 1916 and donated it to the museum the following year, along with a cast of the artist’s groundbreaking Age of Bronze. A prominent Cleveland businessman, Ralph King (18551926) was the president of Realty Investment Company and the largest holder of downtown Cleveland real estate at the turn of the century. He helped found the Print Club of Cleveland in 1919 and also served as the museum’s first curator of prints and drawings until 1921. Over time, King and his wife, Fannie, would donate nearly 900 objects to the museum. 

The celebrated modern dancer Loïe Fuller (18621928) also played an important role in the collection’s early history. Born in Chicago, Fuller developed close relationships with prominent French artists while performing in Paris during the 1890s. After her dancing career ended, Fuller served as the unofficial agent for several French sculptors, including Rodin. In the summer of 1917, she traveled to Cleveland to raise money for the Red Cross and to deliver a lecture about Rodin at the museum. That same year she donated several Rodin sculptures, including the bronze Jean d’Aire and the large plaster Heroic Head of Pierre de Wissant. It was perhaps due to her influence that Rodin gifted to the museum his partial-figure sculpture Fragment of a Leg. 


Heroic Head of Pierre de Wissant, One of the Burghers of Calais, 1886. Auguste Rodin. Plaster; 85 x 60.9 x 50.8 cm. Gift of Loïe Fuller, 1917.722

Emery May Holden Norweb (18851984), who beginning in 1962 served as the museum’s first female president of the board of trustees, presented her initial gift to the museum in 1917, a bronze cast of Rodin’s Heroic Head of Pierre de Wissant. Norweb became familiar with Rodin’s works while living in Paris, where she volunteered in ambulance service during the latter half of World War I. It was there she met her husband, Raymond Henry Norweb (18951983), a career diplomat in the US Foreign Service, then serving as secretary to the American ambassador to France. Norweb continued to develop her passion for art while traveling with her husband through Europe, Latin America, and Asia. She played an important role in acquiring the Guelph Treasure, and also helped build the museum’s collections in Pre-Columbian art, Japanese and Chinese objects, 18th-century French ceramics, and rare coins. 

Salmon P. Halle (18661949), co-founder of the Halle Brothers department store and director of the Mutual Building & Loan Company, was known for his generosity to Cleveland philanthropic enterprises. Salmon and his wife, Carrie Moss Halle, collected art extensively. Together with Ralph King, Halle was instrumental in founding the Print Club and building the museum’s print collection. In 1917 he made his first gift, Embracing Children, a marble sculpture purchased from Rodin. Carrie Halle later donated another Rodin marble, The Fall of the Angels, in memory of her husband. 

These acts of civic generosity were just the beginning. Today, the museum’s Rodin collection includes sculptures, medals, prints, and drawings spanning the artist’s career, many closely related to his most celebrated projects, including The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais


Selected Highlights from the CMA Rodin Collection






The Age of Bronze 1875–76, cast 1916
Bronze; with base: 182.2 x 66.3 x 47 cm (71 11/16 x 26 1/8 x 18 1/2 in.)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph King, 1918.328


When Rodin began work on his groundbreaking, life-size sculpture The Age of Bronze in 1875 he was a relatively unknown artist who had spent four years toiling in Brussels without making significant progress in his career. Preferring the more natural movements of an amateur to the conventional gestures of a professional model, he chose a young Belgian soldier named Auguste Neyt to pose for the figure. Perhaps seeking additional inspiration, Rodin interrupted his work to make a two-month trip to Italy, where he was especially impressed by Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and sculptures for the tombs of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Julius II. The experience inspired Rodin to discard the formulaic, academic traditions of his contemporaries in favor of more dynamic compositions and robust figures teeming with inner vitality. Rodin’s contemporaries would later compare him to Michelangelo, something Rodin considered the ultimate compliment.

Upon returning to Brussels, Rodin resumed work on his standing male nude, initially titled The Vanquished One and The Awakening Man. His earliest designs for this enigmatic nude man awakening to new consciousness depicted the figure holding a spear in his left hand, as if he were a modern man emerging from a prehistoric era. As the sculpture evolved, Rodin removed the spear, thereby freeing the arm and allowing the figure more liberty in gesture and movement. The absence of a readily identifiable narrative, together with Rodin’s abandonment of conventional academic symbolism, dismayed critics. Instead of placing the figure in a specific or familiar historical context, Rodin relied on expressive forms to convey the work’s meaning. Following the spirit of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave for the tomb of Julius II, Rodin boldly explored both the physical sensuality and psychological connotations of the male nude. 

The sculpture’s life-like quality is so remarkable that many did not believe Rodin modeled the work by hand. After exhibiting the original plaster at the Cercle Artistique in Brussels in 1877, accusations began to circulate that Rodin had cast the figure directly from a living person, a practice scorned as inauthentic and lacking artistic skill or invention. Rodin exhibited the work at the Paris Salon later that year, eliciting even more vehement accusations of casting from life.  The scandal forced the government to convene a committee of inquiry, at which Rodin demonstrated that the quality of modeling derived from his own studies of profiles. Through the testimony of friends who saw Rodin working on the sculpture, together with letters to the Undersecretary in the Ministry of Fine Arts Edmond Turquet, Rodin was finally absolved of the charges. By way of compensation, the government acquired a bronze cast in 1880. Turquet became instrumental in awarding Rodin the commission for The Gates of Hell

Rodin’s title, The Age of Bronze, may allude to the third of the five “Ages of Man” described by the early Greek poet Hesiod. According to Hesiod, the Bronze Age was not only a period when men began using bronze implements, but also when they became devoted to war as their purpose and passion. Forging bronze for their homes, tools, and weapons, the men were eventually undone by their violent ways. In light of France’s history of militarism and the nation’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, perhaps Rodin chose this evocative title as a reference to war and violence in his own time.

Rodin cast the Cleveland Age of Bronze in 1916 at the request of Ralph King for the purpose of donating it to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The director at the time, Frederic Whiting, began making inquiries on King’s behalf as early as August 1915 through an intermediary, Frank Purdy of Gorham Company in New York City. Whiting made Rodin aware that the work was destined for the Cleveland Museum of Art. Hoping to enhance his reputation in America, Rodin personally supervised the casting and specified that the work be adorned with his favorite patina—a deep, reddish tone he called “crushed grape.” With its rich, translucent patina, crisp details, and well-defined, energetic forms, the Cleveland Age of Bronze is not only the last lifetime version but it may be the finest cast Rodin ever produced of this seminal masterpiece. Shipped from Paris in March 1918 while the US was still at war with Germany, the sculpture arrived in Cleveland on May 17.

Titans: Support for a Vase, c. 1877. Auguste Rodin and Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. Glazed earthenware; 37.4 x 38.1 x 38.1 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1995.71

Rodin’s early career was framed by two significant periods of collaboration with Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824–1887), one of the most fashionable and productive French sculptors of the period. Legendary for his prolific output, Carrier-Belleuse ran an extremely well-organized studio that enabled him to simultaneously coordinate numerous commissions. Rodin’s first period of engagement with Carrier-Belleuse began after the young sculptor completed his studies at the Petite École in 1857. He continued working as Carrier-Belleuse’s assistant until 1870 and later followed him to Brussels to work on decorative sculptures for that city’s new stock exchange. In the wake of a rift over exhibiting works signed with his own name, Rodin parted ways with Carrier-Belleuse in 1872. 

After six years in Brussels, Rodin returned to Paris in 1877 and established his own studio. To support his new workshop, he periodically hired himself out, working as an assistant to other sculptors. One of these artists was his former master, Carrier-Belleuse, the newly appointed art director of the Sèvres porcelain manufactory at the time. The two artists collaborated frequently together on designs for decorative porcelains until 1882. It was during this period that Rodin contributed to the production of Titans, Support for a Vase. The base, inscribed near the bottom “A. CARRIER-BELLEUSE,” is closely related to a Carrier-Belleuse drawing. It is now widely accepted that Carrier-Belleuse designed the pedestal while Rodin modeled the figures of the Titans, since they have little in common with Carrier-Belleuse’s elegant and refined style. The titans, by contrast, are closely related to Rodin’s muscular figures presented in energetic postures.

As with The Age of Bronze, the four nude males supporting the vase have direct parallels in works by Michelangelo, indicating that Rodin probably conceived the design after his two-month trip to Italy in 1875. The figures recall Michelangelo’s ignudi, the decorative nudes in the corners of the narrative scenes in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, whose twisted bodies are echoed in Rodin’s Titans, each bearing the weight of his burden in a uniquely contorted and exaggerated pose. Along with the swirling drapery, projecting limbs initiate a spiraling motion that encourages the viewer to experience the sculpture from all sides. Rodin owes much to Michelangelo for arranging forms in complex patterns that evolve rhythmically when viewed from different vantage points. Rodin continued to explore repetition and variation of energetic, dramatic poses throughout his career, most notably in The Gates of Hell.

In order to construct this complex support pedestal, Rodin most likely modeled the figures in terracotta before arranging and assembling them around Carrier-Belleuse’s circular plinth. The vase support may have been incorporated into a much larger decorative scheme that included a column below and a jardinière, or vase, above. Rodin made several vases and vase supports during this period, often adorned with hollow-cut and relief motifs in a variety of shapes and colors, although many more may still remain unknown or attributed solely to Carrier-Belleuse. This pedestal base was manufactured by the ceramic factory Hautin, Boulenger & Company in nearby Choisy-le-Roi, where Carriere-Belleuse’s son oversaw production as the factory’s art director. 

The Thinker, c. 1880. Bronze; 70.8 x 34.9 x 59.6 cm. Gift of Alexandre P. Rosenberg, 1979.138

A universal image of a man lost in thought, The Thinker has become one of the most celebrated sculptures in the history of art. Rodin originally planned to place the figure in the lintel above the doors on his massive sculptural project The Gates of Hell.Inspired by The Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (c. 1308–20), The Thinker was intended to represent the poet contemplating the damned during his journey through hell. A bundle of coiled energy, The Thinker sits on his perch high above the doors while anguished figures and skeletons appear in the tympanum behind him. 

As Rodin’s design for the doors evolved from a literal illustration of Dante’s poem into a more general representation of hell, The Thinker developed into a timeless image of both physical strength and contemplative power, perhaps associated with the mental effort and anguish of creativity. As Rodin recalled: “I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator.”

The Thinker’s pose and rippling musculature animates the figure with inner life. Leaning forward as if ready to spring from his seat at any moment, The Thinker evokes associations with Michelangelo’s seated marble portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rodin also drew inspiration from antique sculptures, including the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican collection, as well as contemporary works such as Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Ugolino and His Sons. As with most of the figures in The Gates of Hell, Rodin stripped The Thinker of clothing to emphasize the powerful potential of his muscular physique and to underscore his role as a universal symbol rather than an individual associated with a specific time and place. At once a man of contemplation and potential action, the figure’s captivating power relies on this very ambiguity—he is at once poet, creator, judge, even the sculptor himself.

In the late 1880s, Rodin began exhibiting The Thinker as an independent sculpture, alternately titling it The Poet, The Poet/Thinker, and finally just The Thinker. He began producing monumental versions around 1903 that captured the public’s attention when exhibited that year at the Paris Salon and the Saint Louis Universal Exposition of 1904. Purchased through a subscription by Rodin’s admirers, a cast was donated to the city of Paris and placed in a prominent position in front of the Panthéon. Rodin revealed his immense affinity with this powerful figure when he placed a monumental version next to his wife’s tomb at their home in Meudon following her death in February 1917, obviously intending it as the marker for his own final resting place.

Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, 1880–81. Bronze; 43.4 x 29.2 x 31.7 cm. In memory of Ralph King, gift of Mrs. Ralph King, Ralph T. Woods, Charles G. King, and Frances King Schafer, 1946.352

Rodin populated The Gates of Hell with numerous female figures portrayed in bent or contracted poses, all suffering in agony as punishment for their sins on Earth. Caryatid Carrying Her Stone evolved from a crouching nude above the left pilaster. By 1881, Rodin had enlarged the figure and given her a stone to bear, making her more substantial, although she would not appear in final form until 1887, when she replaced Young Mother in the Grotto in the same position on The Gates of Hell. 

Rodin depicted caryatids, an architectural column carved in the shape of a woman, throughout his career. His first work after leaving the studio of Carrier-Belleuse in 1870 featured a group of children on a pediment of the Brussels Stock Exchange supported on either side by a pair of caryatids representing Trade and Industry. The use of carved figures as architectural support columns originated in classical antiquity, a sign of Rodin’s continuing engagement with older artistic traditions. However, Fallen Caryatid bears little relation to the architectural caryatids, as she is neither decorative nor functional, but conceived instead as an independent, psychologically expressive sculpture. Her contorted body borrows from Renaissance and Baroque precedents, especially Michelangelo’s ignudi from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as well as his Dying Slave from the tomb of Pope Julius II, itself intended as a caryatid support sculpture in the original tomb design.

Rodin translated Fallen Caryatid into numerous versions in bronze and marble almost from the moment of its conception. The esteem he placed on this sculpture is reflected in its exhibition as an independent sculpture as early as 1883, first under the title The Age of Stone, later as Dispirited Woman, and finally presented at the Salon de la Société nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1897 as Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone. The figure was so popular that one critic commented: “This supple little creature, not more that eighteen inches high, is regarded by the sculptor and his friends as one of his very best compositions and many copies of it have been made in both marble and bronze.” 


Embracing Children, c. 1881. Marble; h. 56.6 cm. Gift of Salmon P. Halle, 1917.745

Embracing Children features a child wearing a wreath of flowers on her head and holding a squirming toddler in her lap. Their entwined bodies merge into a spiraling form activated by changing patterns of light and shadow. Rodin began depicting children playing and embracing, subjects that offered opportunities to explore the earliest awakening of emotions of love and affection, as early as the 1870s. Although signed but not dated, Embracing Children is stylistically related to objects and vases Rodin produced in collaboration with Carrier-Belleuse for the Sèvres porcelain factory from 1879 to 1882. Often featuring nude young women with frolicking putti, the works Rodin designed for Sèvres conjure similar associations with the playfulness and innocence of childhood. It may not be coincidence that in 1881 Rodin received a commission from the London collector Constantine Ionides for a sculpture depicting children kissing.

Embracing Children belongs to a series of works Rodin produced in the 18th-century Rococo style popular in certain wealthy circles in France’s Second Empire. Such works attracted the attention of the type of private clients Rodin cultivated while working on large government commissions that often took years to complete. For instance, he received one of his first well-paid private commissions, a marble portraying two young children playing (now in the Musée de Picardie, Amiens), from Alphonse de Rothschild. Rodin’s lively works in this genre elicited comparisons with the Rococo sculptures of Clodion (1738–1814), an artist renowned for charming depictions of children. Commissions for such works provided Rodin with both income and respite from the more somber themes in the roughly contemporaneous Gates of Hell.


Jean d’Aire, One of the Burghers of Calais, 1884. Bronze; 46.9 x 16.5 x 12 cm. Gift of Loïe Fuller, 1917.723

In 1346 English King Edward III laid siege to the northern French port city of Calais, blockading any rescue or escape routes and strangling the economy. After eleven months of starving its citizens, the king finally agreed to lift the siege in exchange for hostages. Six of the city’s leading citizens, or burghers, volunteered to be taken prisoner. Jean d’Aire was one of the men marched out of the city to the English camp, their heads and feet bare, a halter rope around their necks, their bodies covered with the simple tunic of men about to be executed. Eventually released at the behest of the English queen, the burghers became French folk heroes revered for their courage and self-sacrifice. 

In 1884 the city of Calais decided to erect a monument to commemorate this historic event from the Hundred Years War. Rather than idealizing or romanticizing the burghers in the manner of a conventional memorial, Rodin portrayed them as ordinary men, ragged and emaciated after 11 months of deprivation, each experiencing a personal confrontation with death. Jean d’Aire was one of the first sculptures Rodin produced for the project. Removed from the context of the larger ensemble, the museum’s cast represents an outstanding example of Rodin’s ability to convey intense psychological emotion through the body language and facial expressions of a single, isolated figure. Though Jean d’Aire stands stoically upright with squared shoulders, his gaunt body is visible through the sides of his tunic. The thick folds of his garment weigh heavily on his body, metaphorically referring to the internal struggle between the desire to live, fear of torture, and acceptance of his sacrifice for his fellow citizens. While his countenance is resolved and resigned, his glare into space betrays the dread and anxiety raging within his mind.

Rodin’s inspirational debt to past masters is clearly evident in this sculpture. The way the heavy drapery of his tunic roots him to the ground echoes Donatello’s Zuccone for the campanile of Santa-Maria del Fiore in Florence (1423–25), itself a tense, gaunt figure emoting anguish and anxiety. Jean d’Aire’s stance and costume also look back to the hooded mourners in the mid-15th-century tomb of Jean, Duke of Berry (1340–1416). Rodin carefully researched how those heavily draped figures were animated by individualized expressions of anguish and grief. In this sense, Jean d’Aire reflects Rodin’s lifelong fascination with medieval art, as reflected in his acquisition of one of the mourners from the duke’s tomb for his personal collection.

An important work in its own right, the original plaster for Jean d’Aire was exhibited twice before the monument was completed: first in 1889 at Rodin’s joint Paris exhibition with Claude Monet, and again in 1900 at Rodin’s retrospective at the Place de l’Alma. The sculpture’s popularity as an image of invincible resolution only increased as Rodin produced numerous variations of the figure in different sizes, from monumental to this reduced version. Rodin also modeled the hands and heads of burghers separately from their bodies, producing partial-figure sculptures Rodin esteemed as highly as conventionally “complete” works.

Heroic Head of Pierre de Wissant, One of the Burghers of Calais, 1886. Plaster; 85 x 60.9 x 50.8 cm. Gift of Loïe Fuller, 1917.722

Like Jean d’Aire, Pierre de Wissant was one of six burghers who voluntarily surrendered to an English army led by King Edward III in exchange for the English lifting the 11-month siege of Calais during the Hundred Years War. Rodin’s design for the monument honoring the burghers was the antithesis of the formulaic romanticism common to 19th-century public memorials. Rather than idealizing or aggrandizing the subject, Rodin sought to engage viewers by highlighting the burghers’ humanity and intense, emotional reaction to their predicament. His plan of showing an evolving range of reactions exhibited by the burghers as they experienced different stages of contemplating and accepting their fate gave Rodin an unprecedented opportunity to explore extremes of expression and emotion.

Pierre de Wissant, whose anguished expression conveys extreme suffering, is perhaps the most moving figure in The Burghers of Calais. Following his standard practice, Rodin sought regional models or types native to Calais for his figures. One native, Coquelin Cadet, a celebrated actor of the Comédie Française, volunteered to pose for the figure of Pierre de Wissant. Since his early years, Rodin had preferred working with amateur models and actors whose movements and poses seem more natural than the formulaic gestures of professional models. His preference for actors stemmed from contemporary studies of physiognomy and the theory that actors possess a rare ability to accurately express specific emotional states by controlling key facial muscles. Such studies helped Rodin produce an expression of unadulterated distress in his Heroic Head of Pierre de Wissant. Striking in its intense emotionality, the brows knitted mournfully together, the mouth open in lament, Wissant’s powerful head conveys the humanity of the tortured burghers.

Rodin exhibited a version of Pierre de Wissant before completing the ensemble. This figure is the most renowned and reproduced of all the burghers, perhaps as a consequence of its dynamic posture and haunting expression, conveyed through the twisted head, the crushed upper lip, and the way the entire face collapses with emotion. Rodin eventually cast both Pierre de Wissant and Jean d’Aire in heroic or monumental scale in order to enhance details and refine facial features. The exceptionally lively, hand-worked surface of the Cleveland plaster is covered with small markings and translucent washes. Rather than the product of a single casting, areas were built up and adjusted over time. To keep the plaster moist, Rodin likely followed his standard studio practice of having his wife or assistants place wet cloth on the plaster between working sessions.

Study of Honoré de Balzac, 1891–92. Bronze; 52.7 x 39.3 x 32.3 cm. Bequest of Edgar A. Hahn, 1972.277

In 1891 the Société des Gens de Lettres commissioned Rodin to create a monument honoring 19th-century French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). Although already working ­­on a monument to Victor Hugo, Rodin accepted the commission, probably not realizing it would consume him for the next seven years. In addition to immersing himself in Balzac’s life and works, Rodin sought­ to revolutionize public monuments by focusing on the psychological essence of author’s personality and genius. As he worked toward that goal, the Balzac monument went through three distinct design phases, each bringing the work further away from the writer’s physical appearance toward a more abstract, symbolic interpretation, one that dismayed critics and ignited a scandal when the final version was publicly displayed in 1898.

The Société specified that Balzac should be portrayed standing and wearing the monk’s habit he customarily donned while writing. Rodin initially concentrated on capturing Balzac’s physical appearance by studying photographs and written descriptions of the author. He also spent time in Balzac’s native Touraine creating masks of local models that served as the starting point for his sculpture. Rodin began sculpting a series of nude portraits of Balzac in 1892. Modeling the nude form before adding costumes was standard academic practice and previously used by Rodin for The Burghers of Calais. Nude studies allowed Rodin to focus on both the underlying structure of the body and the emotional or psychological expression it conveys. Only after the body met his satisfaction would Rodin add clothes. 

Rodin’s first version of the Balzac monument presented the writer in a defiant standing pose, legs apart, arms crossed over his corpulent belly. The Cleveland half-length figure is a study for this initial version in which a nude Balzac with crossed arms stares contemplatively downward. Like The Thinker, Balzac’s creative vigor is partly conveyed through his powerful musculature. Rodin’s expressive modeling and patterns of light and shadow, especially around the hooded eyes, infuse the figure with an inner vitality suggesting a mind hard at work. Yet, at a time when public monuments tended to idealize and glorify their subjects, Rodin’s rotund Balzac shocked and displeased the monument committee, who recommended that Rodin concentrate on portraying a younger, slimmer Balzac. Rodin completely ignored this directive, and his subsequent versions became even more controversial as they increasingly moved away from naturalism toward more expressive, symbolic forms intended to convey the psychological power of Balzac’s protean genius.

The Fall of the Angels, c. 1890–1900. Marble; 53.5 x 69.8 x 40.6 cm. Gift of Carrie Moss Halle in memory of Salmon Portland Halle, 1960.85

Rodin’s sensual and erotic sculptures stemmed from his preoccupation with two highly charged literary sources: Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Dante and Baudelaire’s descriptions of people suffering eternal damnation due to the sins of the flesh inspired many figures in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, including several related to the embracing couples in The Kiss, Eternal Springtime, and The Fall of the Angels. Given a prominent position in the original design for the lower left door, The Kiss was conceived as a depiction of Paolo and Francesca, two illicit lovers in Dante’s epic poem condemned to wander eternally through hell after Francesca’s husband slayed the pair as they exchanged their first kiss. By 1886 Rodin had decided that the ecstasy of carnal pleasure was incongruous with the overall theme of pain and suffering in The Gates of Hell, so he transformed The Kiss into an independent sculpture that received immediate acclaim when first exhibited in 1887. 

Similarities with The Kiss and Eternal Springtime suggest that The Fall of the Angels was originally conceived as a variant of the former, although now aligned more closely with the theme of damnation in The Gates of Hell. Rodin certainly knew that Dante and Virgil encountered fallen angels raining down from heaven during their journeys through the netherworld. Perhaps inspired by Dante’s poem, Rodin placed winged figures throughout The Gates of Hell, particularly the upper left door, where several entwined couples resemble the figures in The Fall of the Angels.

The Fall of the Angels features two nudes tumbling in a jumble of limbs, feathers, flesh, and stone. A woman with long, flowing hair embraces a winged figure of ambiguous gender, notable for the absence of an obvious male attribute and one slightly protuberant breast. This figure becomes entangled in the woman’s long, flowing hair—a symbolic reference to the sexual allure of the femme fatale recurrent in Symbolist art and literature. The entwined couple in The Fall of the Angels also has close parallels in Rodin’s drawings of erotically embracing lesbians, typically depicted nude, some with wings. Such figures were partly inspired by Baudelaire’s literary descriptions of the “damned” in modern life—spectral figures rejected by society and condemned by the church for their homosexuality. Rodin became intimately familiar with Les Fleurs du mal after drawing the illustrations for the 1887 edition.

Rodin loved marble for its ability to suggest the smooth, translucent surfaces of human flesh.  At times soft and sensual, marble was considered the preeminent material for imbuing the human form with the illusion of an inner, animating life—qualities Rodin consistently sought in his sculptures. While appreciating the traditional aesthetics of marble, he also experimented with new techniques and became known for his rough-cut, non-finito, sketch-like carving style that challenged traditional academic norms of “finish.” Rodin animated his sculptures by exploiting the contrast between highly finished, polished marble—ideal for suggesting palpitating human flesh—and more roughly worked surfaces. He used this technique of contrasting textures to tremendous effect in The Fall of the Angels to evoke the impression of sensual figures blossoming to life from hard, lifeless stone.

Cleveland Art, September/October 2017 

William H. Robinson Senior Curator of Modern Art
Julie Dansereau-Tackett Doctoral Fellow, Case Western Reserve University