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: Auguste Rodin's The Age of Bronze purchased through the John R. Van Derlip Fund

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1954

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has acquired, through the John R. Van Derlip Fund, The Age of Bronze, one of the most famous works of the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Conceived in the same spirit as Rodin's later but more familiar work, The Thinker, The Age of Bronze represents a life-size male figure symbolizing man's awakening to a fuller comprehension of his physical and mental powers. This acquisition, in its own field comparable in importance to Cézanne's painting The Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan, enriches the Institute's collection with a major example by the most important sculptor since Michelangelo and Bernini. In honor of this remarkable addition to the collection, the first great Rodin exhibition to be organized for tour in this country in nearly a quarter of a century will be presented at the Institute between June 15 and August 1, 1954.Rodin's fame reached its peak within his own lifetime. By 1900, when he was sixty years old, his reputation was far greater and more widespread than that of Manet, Degas, or Cézanne, his exact contemporaries. Within a short time after his death in 1917, however, it began a rapid decline. The younger generation of artists and critics turned their backs on his emotionally charged and sometimes melodramatic work in favor of the revolutionary precepts of modern art. With few notable exceptions they failed to understand Rodin's art as the source of the new trends, whether abstract or expressionist.Without question his was an imperfect genius. His work in marble, which had caused such a sensation a decade or two earlier, did not stand the test of time. On the other hand, his work in bronze, originally conceived in clay or plaster, eventually regained the attention of the public and provides the basis for his firm claim to recognition as the greatest of modern sculptors. The artist himself was cast in too heroic a mold for his reputation to suffer long.Time has revealed new values in Rodin's art. Perhaps foremost is the sculptor's treatment of individual figures. Although clearly related in tradition to the work of Renaissance masters, these figures combine obvious facility in modeling with the maximum freedom of expression permitted by the bronze medium. Even the figures which Rodin took from his great project, the Gate of Hell gain, rather than lose, when removed from their context and enlarged. Among his single figures none surpasses The Age of Bronze. Today it is ranked as one of the greatest monuments of modern sculpture.François Auguste René Rodin was born in Paris, November 12, 1840. His father Jean Baptiste Rodin, was a Paris Police Inspector. His mother, Marie Cheffer, came from the provinces. Rodin went to school in the rue St. Jacques until he was nine and later he attended a little school, run by his uncle, at Beauvais. It was at Beauvais that he showed his first interest in drawing and modeling. At fourteen he abandoned school entirely and for three yeas, against his father's will, attended free drawing classes in the Latin Quarter of Paris. He supported himself by working for a decorator, finding time between his classes and his job to attend the lectures of the noted French sculptor of animals, Barye. These lectures, at which Barye taught the necessity of studying nature firsthand, served as Rodin's point of departure for his career as a sculpture, and he never forgot what he learned at them. At seventeen he failed his examinations for the École des Beaux Arts, a bitter blow by the artist officialdom of a nation which later came to revere him as its greatest son in the field of sculpture.Young Rodin continued to work for the decorator until he was twenty-five, when he became an assistant to the academic sculptor, Carrier-Belleuse. After serving in the Franco-Prussian War, he moved to Brussels, and there, though still on a part-time basis, turned to sculpture with all his energy. Rodin had always devoted a great deal of time to the study of sculpture of the Gothic cathedrals in France and Belgium. Now he and his wife, Rose Beuret, traveled as much as their meager funds would permit. In 1875 he managed to save enough for a six week trip to Italy. Rodin returned from Italy imbued with the spirit of the Renaissance and inspired by the works of Donatello and Michelangelo. The weeks following his return to Brussels proved decisive for the sculptor, then thirty-six. In the course of his walks with Rose in the beautiful country around Brussels and evenings spent reading the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, he resolved to express in plastic form some of the ideas which had germinated during his trip in Italy.He conceived the idea of a figure of a purely natural man awakening to the world around him. For such a figure he required a model who has not been spoiled by too much conventional posing for professional sculptors. Through his friendship with Belgian officers billeted in barracks near his flat, he found a young Belgian soldier, Auguste Neyt, a carpenter by trade, who was willing to pose. Neyt was a perfect physical specimen and, though lacking formal education, highly intelligent. He understood the purpose of the sculptor, and the artist found in him the ideal model for the work.Rodin commenced work on The Age of Bronze in 1876 and continued working, almost without pause, for over a year. This meant endless hours of posing for Neyt, who was excused from his military duties by a sympathetic officer. By early 1877 Rodin had completed a life-size nude male figure in plaster. This figure had a staff in its left hand. Rodin had given it to Neyt as a support during the interminable posing. Rodin soon removed the staff because of a disturbing shadow which it threw across the figure, but the upraised left arm in the finished work still suggests it.The completed plaster figure was first exhibited in the Cercle Artistique in Brussels in 1877. It was listed under the title of Le Vaincu. It immediately brought forth the cries of the philistines. Oddly enough, the criticism of the press, and especially that of the Étoile Belge, turned out to be a back-handed compliment. The press contended that a cast had been taken from a live man. Although such a procedure was common practice in rendering isolated parts of a figure, it would have been virtually impossible for Rodin to have made a cast of an entire figure, and under any circumstances he never would have been interested in doing so. Unfortunately for the artist, the reaction started gossip which spread to Paris where Rodin planned to submit the figure to the Salon of 1877.The expense of transporting the figure to Paris presented a serious problem. Rodin received an invitation to stay with a fellow sculptor on the Ile St. Louis, and even received the loan of sufficient space to show the figure until the judging at the Salon. But Rose was forced by financial circumstances to remain in Brussels. Then came days of exasperating delay while the jury made up its mind about the work. Rodin described the ordeal in his letters to Rose. Finally, the figure, under its new name, The Age of Bronze, was accepted for exhibition, but not for purchase by the state. Paris echoed with the charge that it has been cast from a life model. There was even a question of removing it from the Salon. A long and bitter controversy followed. Rodin requested an investigation to clear himself, and Neyt offered to come to Paris to testify. In the end, casts were actually made of Neyt's figure, and photographs of these were sent to Paris. The difference between raw realism of the casts from life and Rodin's interpretation was only too clear. In the end, the artist was vindicated. The Age of Bronze remained in the Salon. But the government did not purchase it.In the final analysis it was Rodin's other works which cleared him of these absurd charges. His fellow artists, as well as the critics, gradually recognized his immense facility in modeling and his talent for giving life to sculptural form. It became clear to all that The Age of Bronze represented nature interpreted, not nature imitated. The dignity and nobility inherent in the work could only be the creation of a selective mind. This moving portrayal of latent energy had the mysterious power of a great and original work. During the course of the next ten years Rodin was to demonstrate this power again and again as he turned from the theme of man's dawning consciousness in The Age of Bronze to his evangelical fervor in the St. John and his mastery of the reason in The Thinker.Rodin was soon joined by Rose in Paris. Within three years his reputation was established. In 1880, in compensation for his trials during the Salon controversy, the state acquired The Age of Bronze. Payment, however, was limited to the cost of casting it in bronze. The statue was placed in the Luxembourg Gardens where it stood until 1890. It was later taken to the Luxembourg Palace and then to the Hotel Biron, now the Rodin Museum.The experience of the first official showing of The Age of Bronze had a happy sequel when the artist received a great commission from the French Government for a pair of doors for the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Ever since his return from Italy, he had longed to attempt a large decorative ensemble. He took Dante's Divine Comedy as his theme and devoted many years to this project.The title of the Institute of Arts' new work should not be confused with the medium. When selecting the title, The Age of Bronze, Rodin wished to emphasize man's realization of the fact that he had a mind with which to invent and control his destiny. Careful analysis of the figure will reveal that every detail reflects this theme. It is clear at first glance that the youth is awakening from a lethargic sleep. On closer examination it becomes apparent that his legs are not sure of their power. But his chest is expanding, his thorax dilating, and his face turning upwards, as he springs to life. The gestures of his arms, one of which originally held the staff, indicate that he is trying to throw off his sleep. Rodin himself emphasized the fact that the figure represents a slow awakening. In other words, he wished to suggest the passing of time in the evolution of man from animal to superior being. The Age of Bronze is the first in a series of Rodin's works making symbolic use of the human figure to interpret themes of man's capacities and progress, a series which reaches its thematic climax in The Thinker.A further study of The Age of Bronze reveals Rodin's debt to artistic traditions of the past. The spirit of The Age of Bronze can be traced to the figures of David by Donatello and Michelangelo, both of which Rodin had studied in Italy. It can also be traced to Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where the nascent Adam touches the hand of God. In a parallel metaphor, youth, in The Age of Bronze, awakens to the power given to man created in God's image. The natural feeling of the youthful body in the Rodin work can be traced to Barye's insistence on the direct study of nature.Rodin's combination of fidelity to nature and the treatment of sculpture in terms of light, a purely personal innovation of the greatest originality, transcends, however, the long established tradition of the Renaissance. Perhaps it is this vitality of the surface treatment in terms of light which more than anything else brings The Age of Bronze to life. By the free modulation of natural planes and by taking liberties in the treatment of skin and hair, such as an occasional exaggeration to catch extra light, Rodin has achieved an effect of light and shadow which enhances both the plastic interest and the thematic content of his work. This treatment bears a relation to the open brushwork method of the Impressionist painters, to whom he owes a great debt. The influence of his contemporaries, the Impressionists, many of whom were his close friends, cannot be overestimated in Rodin's work. However, his art is much more than a reflection in sculpture of the painting of the period. Works like The Age of Bronze reveal Rodin's profound understanding of the true sculptural relationships of volume to void, qualities sometimes lost in this later, more melodramatic work. Indeed, it may be said that in The Age of Bronze we find the chief contributions of Rodin's art: symbolic meaning expressed through vigorous modeling and surface treatment, heroic, yet disciplined.The years following Rodin's return to Paris brought success after success. A list of his works would be too long to record here. It is enough to say that by 1890, when Rodin was fifty, he had completed the greater part of his oeuvre and had become an international figure. As he prospered he moved from studio to studio, always accompanied by his devoted companion and wife, Rose. He purchased the “Villa des Brillants” in Meudon and the Hotel Biron in Paris, both of which he maintained as a combination studio and museum. He became the “grand old man” of nineteenth-century art, his extraordinary personality almost overshadowing his lasting contribution to sculpture. The flame of his genius continued to burn, but much of his energy was devoted to his friendship for others. He was at home to all, and he gave advice freely. He was sought by Edward VII and the Kaiser. He also received the praise of the literary great, among them Stevenson and Zola. The German poet, Rilke, was his secretary for a time. Isadora Duncan danced for him while he sketched. However, this universal adulation was not one-sided, for Rodin in his turn championed what he considered great art. He was one of the first to encourage Matisse and to purchase a painting by Van Gogh.Rodin's influence on twentieth-century sculpture has been infinitely greater than his generally realized. The freedom and variety of his work have provided inspiration directly or indirectly for every school of sculptural thought. Bourdelle and Despiau served as his studio assistants and carried on his tradition for another generation. Brancusi came to Paris to study with the master, and his early work reflects the most sensitive understanding of Rodin's art. Lipchitz, one of the chief exponents of modern cubist sculpture, has recorded a direct, formative influence by Rodin his work, and the painter-sculptors, Matisse and Picasso, have both acknowledged their debt to him.Shortly after the turn of the century the French Government ordered a second cast of The Age of Bronze. Rodin agreed to have another example cast provided he could find a skilled founder whose work he could supervise. He turned to the firm of Alexis Rudier, managed by Eugène Rudier, and from 1902 until his death in 1917, all of his works were cast there. The Rudier pieces have long been considered the finest in patine and surface quality of any created by the master.The Institute's recently acquired Rodin work dates from early days of the happy relationship between Rodin and the Rudier firm. Not long after they established their relationship, Eugène Rudier ordered a cast of The Age of Bronze for his country home at Le Vesinet. This cast remained for over forty years at Le Vesinet until Rudier's death in 1952. In Rudier's possession it received the best of care and remains today in perfect condition. Its removal to the United States and purchase by the Institute brings to Minneapolis one of the finest examples of Rodin's art, cited for its exceptional quality and sensitivity by the high authority of the Curator of the Rodin Museum of Paris.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Detail of The Age of Bronze, bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin realized between 1876-77. Acquired through the John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  2. August Rodin: The Age of Bronze. 1876-77. Bronze. 72 inches high. Cast and formerly owned by the late Eugène Rudier, Rodin's friend and foundryman. The work symbolized man's awakening to consciousness of his mental and physical powers.
  3. The Age of Bronze by Auguste Rodin. Critics were so impressed by the work's physical correctness that Rodin was charged with having cast the statue from a live man.
  4. Detail of The Age of Bronze taken from above the figure's left shoulder. The free treatment of the hair is related to the Impressionists' open brushwork technique.
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Auguste Rodin's The Age of Bronze purchased through the John R. Van Derlip Fund," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 43, no. 6 (June, 1954): 42-48.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009