How to Capture the Soul: Rodin’s Portraits
While looking at Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portrait bust of Voltaire in the Louvre, sculptor Auguste Rodin remarked, “To tell the truth, there is no artistic work that requires as much penetrating insight as the bust and the portrait. … Such a work is the equivalent of a biography.” On a separate occasion, Rodin stated, “The resemblance that [the artist] should achieve is that of the soul. Only this matters.” A new, full-scale reinstallation at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, focuses on Rodin putting those words into practice in his own portrait busts. Known for his large-scale, full-bodied works such as The Kiss, Rodin imbued an equal amount of passion into his symbolic, soulful portraits of friends, lovers, and the famous.
A gift to the city from native son Jules Mastbaum in 1929, the Rodin Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of work by the sculptor outside of his native Paris. Mastbaum, a movie-house mogul, enjoyed the cinematic, show-stopping nature of The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, The Kiss, and The Thinker as well as the smaller, more intimate portraits now featured. Under the guidance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum underwent a three-year, $9 million face-lift, finally reopening in 2012 (which I wrote about here). That initial “face” of the reopened museum showcased their casting of Rodin’s monumental The Gates of Hell, one of only three original castings in existence. After a much shorter hiatus of weeks rather than years, the Rodin Museum curators chose to showcase this second “face” of the collection — the portrait busts ranging from the publicly monumental to the privately intimate.
As Antoinette Le Normand-Romain points out in her new, lavishly illustrated and exhaustively researched book, Rodin, when it came to Rodin’s choice of subjects for portrait busts, “The early friends and admirers … and the second group, made up largely of writers, were followed by collectors.” All three stages of Rodin’s progress as a portraitist appear in this new installation in Philadelphia. A small, but intriguing in its focus, institution, the Rodin Museum is the perfect place to look at Rodin’s subjects face to face and eye to eye and come away with the full effect Rodin intended.
The first of Rodin’s friends to request a portrait bust was fellow artist Jean-Paul Laurens. A realist with a republican, anti-authoritarian bent, Lauren initially disliked Rodin’s portrait of him open-mouthed, yet the gesture captured perfectly a man who visually spoke truth to political and clerical power. Another fellow artist and friend, Jules Dalou also took issue with details of his bust portrait. Dalou and Rodin vied for many of the major monument sculpture commissions available at the time. Rodin chose to pay tribute to (and perhaps poke fun at) Dalou’s competitive nature by making the veins of Dalou’s neck stand out in his portrait, as if in mid-rant as to why he deserved the job they both wanted. Yet a third friend and fellow artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, took issue with his portrait bust, feeling that the slight tilt of the head portrayed him as more arrogant than thoughtful. Rodin appeased Puvis de Chavannes by addressing a secondary complaint — that, like Laurens and Dalou, his portrait was unclothed — by adding a collar to the bust.
Following his own portraiture credo, Rodin disrobed his subjects — in these cases, closely known friends — of all defensive pretentions down to their personal essence. “By a strange, fatal law,” Rodin later complained, “the one who commissions his image is always determined to fight the talent of the artist he has chosen. It is very rare that a man sees himself as he is, and even if he knows himself, it is disagreeable to him for an artist to portray him with sincerity.” Rodin called them as he saw them, resisting all attempts to sway his artistically imperial, umpire’s judgment. For those unfamiliar with figures such as Laurens, Dalou, or Puvis de Chavannes today, one look at their portraits by Rodin makes you feel like you now somehow know them and their work.
As intimate, and revealing, as these portraits of Rodin’s friends and fellow artists were, his portraits of the women in his life were even more so. Rose Beuret endured as Rodin’s mistress from 1864, when the young seamstress and the sculptor began living together. They finally married in 1917, the last year of both of their lives. The Rodin Museum owns a mask of Rose Beuret modeled in the early 1880s, but executed in molded ground glass posthumously in 1925 that captures the woman’s fragile relationship with Rodin as well as her enduring strength in the face of his affairs.
Of those affairs, Camille Claudel came closest to surpassing Beuret in Rodin’s affections. Claudel, a talented sculptor in her own right, appealed to Rodin as an artistic soul mate, yet he could never bring himself to break with the loyal, long-suffering Beuret. Sadly, Claudel developed some mental illness around 1905. Her brother institutionalized her in 1913, where she spent the last 30 years of her life. Rodin sculpted Claudel’s portrait many times, often using her beautiful face as a stand-in for a mythological female, but in Thought, Rodin captured Claudel’s personal introspection as well as her desperation by depicting the fully realized head “trapped” in a block of unfinished stone. As Le Normand-Romain recounts, the title for the piece came from a friend’s remark that the sculpture “was thought emerging from matter,” a description that could apply to many of Rodin’s portraits.
As Rodin gained prominence as a sculptor, he began to compete for monument commissions, most notably for the monuments of two of France’s most famous writers — Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. Rodin’s Apotheosis of Victor Hugo depicts the turmoil of the exiled and repatriated author, but Rodin’s bust of Hugo truly depicts the writer’s almost classical Roman stoicism in the face of political upheaval. In a similar way, Rodin’s approach to Balzac’s monument took him to greater and greater simplicity. Naked Balzac depicts the portly author as all too human, but also all too confident in his genius. When some complained about the nudity, Rodin wrapped Balzac’s body in a monk’s robe, deemphasizing the body while reemphasizing the dramatic head of Balzac, who grew his hair long as a sign of his love for Ewelina Hańska, the Polish noblewoman who, after years of complications, became his wife for the last half year of his life. When Rodin learned the story behind Balzac’s hair, the symbolism of that gesture inspired him to make his own grand sculptural gesture.
The robed Balzac marks a turning point in Rodin’s sculpture from bravura complexity and movement to bravura simplicity and stillness, what Le Normand-Romain calls “a more stripped-down, essentialist form of sculpture.” In 1908, photographer Edward Steichen visited Rodin to study the robed Balzac in a series of photographs, culminating in the haunting, darkened outline seen in The Silhouette, 4 A.M. “You will make the world understand my Balzac with your pictures,” Rodin told Steichen, who later said he’d never seen anyone as touched by his photographs as Rodin at that moment. It’s that recognition of an essence captured in sculpture that Rodin longed for, and this exhibition hopes to deliver.
With fame came access to the equally famous for Rodin. Gustav Mahler, already an internationally known composer and conductor, posed for Rodin in 1909, at the height of his powers yet with barely two more years to live. Initially shocked by the intensity of Rodin’s approach — studying his head from all angles, as well as his measure of his shoulders and chest — Mahler grew to respect and admire Rodin. Like all of Rodin’s portrait busts, the bust of Mahler’s head is meant to be viewed in the round, from every angle. The composer’s hair almost flames out from the high forehead, which seems to be fixed in deep thought as if in mid-composition. Rodin “reused” Mahler’s head for another sculpture (not in Philadelphia) he titled alternately as Mozart or Eighteenth-century Man. Like Thought, that second Mahler sculpture rises from the raw stone around it, as if a musical thought rising from the silence embodied by Mozart/Mahler himself. Thus, Mahler becomes Mozart becomes music itself in a continual whittling down to the very essence of art.
Such honesty and symbolism together could draw condemnation, as in the case of Rodin’s 1915 portrait bust of then-Pope Benedict XV. Sculpted at the height of World War I, during which the pontiff took a neutral position to negotiate between the sides (thus winning the ire of both, including that of Rodin’s native France), Rodin’s sculpture depicts the real-life crooked features of the least well-remembered pope of the 20th century so well that the portrait didn’t enter the Vatican’s collection until 1971. Whether Rodin deliberately emphasized the pope’s crookedness (from a French perspective) is left to the viewer’s imagination.
But such honesty and symbolism could also create magic. Rodin’s 1909 portrait bust of Edward H. Harriman (shown above) shows an artist and a man at their most powerful. When Rodin sculptured Harriman, the railroad executive had only months to live. In addition to being one of the most powerful men in the American railroad industry of the 19th century, Harriman lived life to the fullest, sponsoring and traveling along on an expedition to Alaska and even developing a love for Ju-Jitsu on a trip to Japan that inspired him to bring martial artists back to America to spread the sport further. The Harriman Rodin met still burned with that inner fire, but the flesh was weakening. Rodin sculpted Harriman’s eyes as deep, dark holes, that express the raging “against the dying of the light”Dylan Thomas would write about decades later. Although a thoroughly modern man, Harriman appears in a toga — an odd touch by Rodin perhaps hinting at the Roman-esque stoicism of the dying executive with the still-raging spirit.
Amidst these portrait busts at the Rodin Museum sits the site’s copy of The Kiss, also a portrait perhaps, but of whom we’ll never know. This reinstallation of Rodin’s works emphasizing his portraiture restores Rodin’s combination of humanity and mythology in his art. We don’t know who those lovers were in real life, but names don’t always matter when it comes to the universal truth of love. However, the names of Rodin’s portrait subjects remind us that universals of the human spirit — passion, pride, creativity, longing, endurance — ultimately require names, faces, and individual souls to embody them.
[Image:Auguste Rodin. Edward H. Harriman, modeled 1909, cast 1925. Author photograph.]
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for providing me a press pass and other press materials to see the new installation of portrait busts. Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a review copy of Rodin by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain.]
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