Auguste Rodin turns 172

Here are 17.2 things you might not know about him.

New Statesman
Auguste Rodin poses with a marble version of "The Kiss" for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. (PHOTO: Musee Rodin)

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Parisian sculptor Auguste Rodin – the esteemed artist who made cold metal look like warm, supple flesh, who ushered an era of sensual realism into modern sculpture, who drove passion into the heart of bronze. Were he alive today, he would be 172. In light of such an occasion, here are 17.2 things you might not know about Rodin, the man:

1. He was short-sighted.

2. He entered art school, as an illustrator, at age 14.

3. He failed three times to be accepted into the École des Beaux-Arts, one of France’s most illustrious art schools. As a result, he shunned the art establishment and spent much of his career working outside its official channels.

4. He worked often, in his youth, as a contract bricklayer, modeller and ornamental sculptor. He returned intermittently to this career at points when he could not financially support himself as an artist.  

5. Man with the Broken Nose, a bust depicting the battered face of a poor, local Parisian, was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1865 on the basis of being un-aesthetic and incomplete. It took ten years for the Salon to accept the work, of which Rodin was extremely fond.

6. He exhibited in the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, USA. The fair was ludicrously popular even by today’s standards, attracting over 10m visitors – the equivalent of 20% of the US population at the time.

7. Heinz Ketchup, Hires Root Beer, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone also made their US debut at the Philadelphia fair. But, I digress.

8. In 1877 Rodin produced The Age of Bronze, a sculpture so life-like that he was accused of having cast the work directly from his living male model. Rodin, deeply offended, could do little to dispel the controversy. He is said thereafter to have adopted a more exaggerated style to avoid future accusations of sculptural short-cutting.

9. He worked on a monumental comission depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno –titled The Gates of Hell – for a full thirty seven years. At the time of his death it was still unfinished, and thirty two years overdue.

10. He illustrated an edition of Le Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) – the rather infamous volume of decadent, symbolist poetry by Charles Baudelaire.

11. His luxurious beard put many, less worthy beards to shame.

12. His famous sculpture The Kiss (1888) was no stranger to provocation.  One viewing in the town hall of Lewes, England, in 1913 was described thus:

Its exhibition caused local Puritans to make so many objections that it had to be surrounded by a railing and draped with a sheet.

Oh dear.

13. Photographs of The Kiss were also censored in Canada, in 1919.

14. And again in Japan, 1924. One musuem had a screen of bamboo placed, at request, around a version of the work.

15. Later in life, Rodin was made a Knight of Belgium. Forgive me, I cannot offer further explanation.  

16. The Thinker (1902) was originally called The Poet.

17. Rodin was a published author. In 1914 he produced a book on Gothic churches titled Les Cathédrales de France  (The Cathedrals of France). The book was built of illustrations and “poetic descriptions”.

17.2 Rodin was also a womanizer (though history seems to look not unkindly upon this fact) whose conquests are said to have included a Duchess and his 19 year old pupil Camille Claudel. Curiously, Rodin also kept a steady partner - one Rose Beuret, whom the artist met at age twenty four - for his entire life. The pair married just two weeks before his death in 1917.

And there you have it. Three cheers and an absinthe-laced toast (everyone’s favorite fin de siècle tipple) for Auguste, eight score and twelve years old today.