Read CHAPTER IV - RODIN of Promenades of an Impressionist, free online book, by James Huneker, on


Rodin, the French sculptor, deserves well of our new century; the old one did so incontinently batter him.  The anguish of his own Hell’s Portal he endured before he moulded its clay between his thick clairvoyant fingers.  Misunderstood, therefore misrepresented, he with his pride and obstinacy aroused the one buttressing the other was not to be budged from his formulas and practice of sculpture.  Then the world of art swung unwillingly and unamiably toward him, perhaps more from curiosity than conviction.  Rodin became famous.  And he is more misunderstood than ever.  His very name, with its memory of Eugene Sue’s romantic rancour you recall that impossible and diabolic Jesuit Rodin in The Mysteries of Paris? has been thrown in his teeth.  He has been called ruse, even a fraud; while the wholesale denunciation of his work as erotic is unluckily still green in our memory.  The sculptor, who in 1877 was accused of “faking” his life-like Age of Brass now at the Luxembourg by taking a mould from the living model, also experienced the discomfiture of being assured some years later that, not knowing the art of modelling, his statue of Balzac was only an evasion of difficulties.  And this to the man who had in the interim wrought so many masterpieces.

To give him his due he stands prosperity not quite as well as he did poverty.  In every great artist there is a large area of self-esteem; it is the reservoir which he must, during years of drought and defeat, draw upon to keep his soul fresh.  Without the consoling fluid of egoism, genius must perish in the dust of despair.  But fill this source to the brim, accelerate the speed of its current, and artistic deterioration may ensue.  Rodin has been called, fatuously, the second Michael Angelo as if there could ever be a replica of any human.  He has been hailed as a modern Praxiteles.  And he is often damned as a myopic decadent whose insensibility to pure line and deficiency in constructional power have been elevated by his admirers into sorry virtues.  Yet is Rodin justly appraised?  Do his friends not overdo their glorification, his critics their censure?  Nothing so stales a demigod’s image as the perfumes burned before it by his worshippers; the denser the smoke the sooner crumble the feet of their idol.

However, in the case of Rodin the fates have so contrived their malicious game that at no point of his career has he been without the company of envy, chagrin, and slander.  Often, when he had attained a summit, he would find himself thrust down into a deeper valley.  He has mounted to triumphs and fallen to humiliations, but his spirit has never been quelled, and if each acclivity he scales is steeper, the air atop has grown purer, more stimulating, and the landscape spreads wider before him.  He can say with Dante:  “La montagna che drizza voi che il mondo fece torti.”  Rodin’s mountain has always straightened in him what the world made crooked.  The name of his mountain is Art.  A born non-conformist, Rodin makes the fourth of that group of nineteenth-century artists Richard Wagner, Henrik Ibsen, and Edouard Manet who taught a deaf and blind world to hear and see and think and feel.

Is it not dangerous to say of a genius that his work alone should count, that his life is negligible?  Though Rodin has followed Flaubert’s advice to artists to lead ascetic lives that their art might be the more violent, nevertheless his career, colourless as it may seem to those who better love stage players and the watery comedies of society this laborious life of a poor sculptor is not to be passed over if we are to make any estimate of his art.  He, it is related, always becomes enraged at the word “inspiration,” enraged at the common notion that fire descends from heaven upon the head of the favoured neophyte of art.  Rodin believes in but one inspiration nature.  He swears he does not invent, but copies nature.  He despises improvisation, has contemptuous words for “fatal facility,” and, being a slow-moving, slow-thinking man, he admits to his councils those who have conquered art, not by assault, but by stealth and after years of hard work.  He sympathises with Flaubert’s patient toiling days, he praises Holland because after Paris it seemed slow.  “Slowness is a beauty,” he declared.  In a word, Rodin has evolved a theory and practice of his art that is the outcome like all theories, all techniques of his own temperament.  And that temperament is giant-like, massive, ironic, grave, strangely perverse at times; and it is the temperament of a magician doubled by that of a mathematician.

Books are written about him.  De Maupassant describes him in Notre Coeur with picturesque precision.  He is tempting as a psychologic study.  He appeals to the literary, though he is not “literary.”  His modelling arouses tempests, either of dispraise or idolatry.  To see him steadily, critically, after a visit to his studios in Paris or Meudon, is difficult.  If the master be there then you feel the impact of a personality that is as cloudy as the clouds about the base of a mountain and as impressive as the mountain.  Yet a pleasant, unassuming, sane man, interested in his clay absolutely that is, unless you discover him to be more interested in humanity.  If you watch him well you may find yourself well watched; those peering eyes possess a vision that plunges into your soul.  And the soul this master of marbles sees as nude as he sees the human body.  It is the union of artist and psychologist that places Rodin apart.  These two arts he practises in a medium that has hitherto not betrayed potentialities for such almost miraculous performances.  Walter Pater is quite right in maintaining that each art has its separate subject-matter; nevertheless, in the debatable province of Rodin’s sculpture we find strange emotional power, hints of the art of painting and a rare musical suggestiveness.  But this is not playing the game according to the rules of Lessing and his Laocooen.

Let us drop this old aesthetic rule of thumb and confess that during the last century a new race of artists sprang up from some strange element and, like flying-fish, revealed to a wondering world their composite structures.  Thus we find Berlioz painting with his instrumentation; Franz Liszt, Tschaikowsky, and Richard Strauss filling their symphonic poems with drama and poetry, and Richard Wagner inventing an art which he believed to embrace the seven arts.  And there is Ibsen, who used the dramatic form as a vehicle for his anarchistic ideas; and Nietzsche, who was such a poet that he was able to sing a mad philosophy into life; and Rossetti, who painted poems and made poetry that is pictorial.  Sculpture was the only art that had resisted this universal disintegration, this imbroglio of the arts.  No sculptor before Rodin had dared to break the line, dared to shiver the syntax of stone.  For sculpture is a static, not a dynamic art is it not?  Let us observe the rules, though we preserve the chill spirit of the cemetery.  What Mallarme attempted to do with French poetry Rodin accomplished in clay.  His marbles do not represent but present emotion, are the evocation of emotion itself; as in music, form and substance coalesce.  If he does not, as did Mallarme, arouse “the silent thunder afloat in the leaves,” he can summon from the vasty deep the spirits of love, hate, pain, despair, sin, beauty, ecstasy; above all, ecstasy.  Now the primal gift of ecstasy is bestowed upon few.  In our age Keats had it, and Shelley; Byron, despite his passion, missed it, and so did Wordsworth.  We find it in Swinburne, he had it from the first; but few French poets have it.  Like the “cold devils” of Felicien Rops, coiled in frozen ecstasy, the blasts of hell about them, Charles Baudelaire can boast the dangerous attribute.  Poe and Heine knew ecstasy, and Liszt also; Wagner was the master adept of his century.  Tschaikowsky followed him close; and in the tiny piano scores of Chopin ecstasy is pinioned in a few bars, the soul often rapt to heaven in a phrase.  Richard Strauss has shown a rare variation on the theme of ecstasy; voluptuousness troubled by pain, the soul tormented by stranger nuances.

Rodin is of this tormented choir; he is master of its psychology.  It may be the decadence, as any art is in decadence which stakes the parts against the whole.  The same was said of Beethoven by the followers of Haydn, and the successors of Richard Strauss will be surely abused quite as violently as the Wagnerites abuse Strauss to-day employing against him the same critical artillery employed against Wagner.  That this ecstasy should be aroused by pictures of love and death, as in the case of Poe and Baudelaire, Wagner and Strauss, must not be adjudged as a black crime.  In the Far East they hypnotise neophytes with a bit of broken mirror, for in the kingdom of art, as in the Kingdom of Heaven, there are many mansions.  Possibly it was a relic of his early admiration and study of Baudelaire that set Wagner to extorting ecstasy from his orchestra by images of death and love; and no doubt the temperament which seeks such combinations a temperament commoner in mediaeval days than ours was inherent in Wagner.  He makes his Isolde sing mournfully and madly over a corpse and, throwing herself upon the dead body of Tristan, die shaken by the sweet cruel pains of love.  Richard Strauss closely patterns after Wagner in his Salome, there is the head of a dead man, and there is the same dissolving ecstasy.  Both men play with similar counters love and death, and death and love.  And so Rodin.  In Pisa we may see (attributed by Vasari) Orcagna’s fresco of the Triumph of Death.  The sting of the flesh and the way of all flesh are inextricably blended in Rodin’s Gate of Hell.  His principal reading for forty years has been Dante and Baudelaire.  The Divine Comedy and Les Fleurs du Mal are the key-notes in this white symphony of Auguste Rodin’s.  Love and life and bitterness and death rule the themes of his marbles.  Like Beethoven and Wagner he breaks the academic laws of his art, but then he is Rodin, and where he achieves magnificently lesser men would miserably perish.  His large tumultuous music is for his chisel alone to ring out and sing.


The first and still the best study of Rodin as man and thinker is to be found in a book by Judith Cladel, the daughter of the novelist (author of Mes Paysans).  She named it Auguste Rodin, pris sur la vie, and her pages are filled with surprisingly vital sketches of the workaday Rodin.  His conversations are recorded; altogether this little picture has much charm and proves what Rodin asserts that women understand him better than men.  There is a fluid, feminine, disturbing side to his art and nature very appealing to emotional women.  Mlle. Cladel’s book has also been treasure-trove for the anecdote hunters; all have visited her pages.  Camille Mauclair admits his indebtedness; so does Frederick Lawton, whose big volume is the most complete life (probably official) that has thus far appeared, either in French or English.  It is written on the side of Rodin, like Mauclair’s more subtle study, and like the masterly criticism of Roger Marx.  Born at Paris in 1840 the natal year of his friends Claude Monet and Zola and in humble circumstances, not enjoying a liberal education, the young Rodin had to fight from the beginning, fight for bread as well as an art schooling.  He was not even sure of a vocation.  An accident determined it.  He became a workman in the atelier of Carrier-Belleuse, the sculptor, but not until he had failed at the Beaux-Arts (which was a stroke of luck for his genius) and after he had enjoyed some tentative instruction under the great animal sculptor, Barye.  He was never a steady pupil of Barye, nor did he long remain with him.  He went to Belgium and “ghosted” for other sculptors; indeed, it was a privilege, or misfortune, to have been the “ghost” anonymous assistant for half a dozen sculptors.  He learned his technique by the sweat of his brow before he began to make music upon his own instrument.

How his first work, The Man With the Broken Nose, was refused by the Salon jury is history.  He designed for the Sèvres porcelain works; he made portrait busts, architectural ornaments for sculptors, caryatides; all styles that are huddled in the yards and studios of sculptors he had essayed and conquered.  No man knew his trade better, although we are informed that with the chisel of the practicien Rodin was never proficient he could not or would not work at the marble en bloc.  His works to-day are in the leading museums of the world and he is admitted to have “talent” by the academic men.  Rivals he has none, nor will he have successors.  His production is too personal.  Like Richard Wagner, Rodin has proved a Upas tree for many lesser men he has reflected or else absorbed them.  His closest friend, the late Eugene Carriere, warned young sculptors not to study Rodin too curiously.  Carriere was wise, but his own art of portraiture was influenced by Rodin; swimming in shadow, his enigmatic heads have a suspicion of the quality of sculpture Rodin’s not the mortuary art of so much academic sculpture.

A profound student of light and of movement, Rodin, by deliberate amplification of the surfaces of his statues, avoiding dryness and harshness of outline, secures a zone of radiancy, a luminosity, which creates the illusion of reality.  He handles values in clay as a painter does his tones.  He gets the design of the outline by movement which continually modifies the anatomy the secret, he believes, of the Greeks.  He studies his profiles successively in full light, obtaining volume or planes at once and together; successive views of one movement.  The light plays with more freedom upon his amplified surfaces intensified in the modelling by enlarging the lines.  The edges of certain parts are amplified, deformed, falsified, and we see that light-swept effect, that appearance as if of luminous emanations.  This deformation, he declares, was practised by the great sculptors to snare the undulating appearance of life.  Sculpture, he asserts, is the “art of the hole and the lump, not of clear, well-smoothed, unmodelled figures.”  Finish kills vitality.  Yet Rodin can chisel a smooth nymph for you if he so wills, but her flesh will ripple and run in the sunlight.  His art is one of accents.  He works by profile in depth, not by surfaces.  He swears by what he calls “cubic truth”; his pattern is a mathematical figure; the pivot of art is balance, i.e., the oppositions of volume produced by movement.  Unity haunts him.  He is a believer in the correspondences of things, of the continuity in nature; a mystic as well as a geometrician.  Yet such a realist is he that he quarrels with any artist who does not see “the latent heroic in every natural movement.”

Therefore he does not force the pose of his model, preferring attitudes or gestures voluntarily adopted.  His sketch-books, as copious, as vivid as the drawings of Hokusai he is very studious of Japanese art are swift memoranda of the human machine as it dispenses its normal muscular motions.  Rodin, draughtsman, is as surprising and original as Rodin, sculptor.  He will study a human foot for months, not to copy it, but to possess the secret of its rhythms.  His drawings are the swift notations of a sculptor whose eye is never satisfied, whose desire to pin on paper the most evanescent movements of the human machine is almost a mania.  The French sculptor avoids studied poses.  The model tumbles down anywhere, in any contortion or relaxation he or she wishes.  Practically instantaneous is the method adopted by Rodin to preserve the fleeting attitudes, the first shiver of surfaces.  He draws rapidly with his eye on the model.  It is a mere scrawl, a few enveloping lines, a silhouette.  But vitality is in it; and for his purposes a mere memorandum of a motion.  A sculptor has made these extraordinary drawings not a painter.  It will be well to observe the distinction.  He is the most rhythmic sculptor of them all.  And rhythm is the codification of beauty.  Because he has observed with a vision quite virginal he insists that he has affiliations with the Greeks.  But if his vision is Greek his models are Parisian, while his forms are more Gothic than the pseudo-Greek of the academy.  As W.C.  Brownell wrote years ago:  “Rodin reveals rather than constructs beauty... no sculptor has carried expression further; and expression means individual character completely exhibited rather than conventionally suggested.”  Mr. Brownell was also the first critic to point out that Rodin’s art was more nearly related to Donatello than to Michael Angelo.  He is in the legitimate line of French sculpture, the line of Goujon, Puget, Rude, Barye.  Dalou did not hesitate to assert that the Dante portal is “one of the most, if not the most, original and astonishing pieces of sculpture of the nineteenth century.”

This Dante Gate, begun more than twenty years ago, not finished yet, and probably never to be, is an astounding fugue, with death, the devil, hell, and the passions as a horribly beautiful four-voiced theme.  I saw the composition a few years ago at the Rue de l’Universite atelier.  It is as terrifying a conception as the Last Judgment; nor does it miss the sonorous and sorrowful grandeur of the Medici Tombs.  Yet how different, how feverish, how tragic!  Like all great men working in the grip of a unifying idea, Rodin modified the old technique of sculpture so that it would serve him as plastically as does sound a musical composer.  A deep lover of music, his inner ear may dictate the vibrating rhythms of his forms his marbles are ever musical; not “frozen music” as Goethe said of Gothic architecture, but silent swooning music.  This gate is a Frieze of Paris, as deeply significant of modern aspiration and sorrow as the Parthenon Frieze is the symbol of the great clear beauty of Hellas.  Dante inspired this monstrous and ennobled masterpiece, but Baudelaire filled many of its chinks and crannies with writhing ignoble shapes; shapes of dusky fire that, as they tremulously stand above the gulf of fears, wave ineffectual desperate hands.  Heine in his Deutschland asks: 

     Kennst du die Hoelle des Dante nicht,
       Die schreckliche Terzetten? 
     Wen da der Dichter hineingesperrt
       Den kann kein Gott mehr retten.

And from the “singing flames” of Rodin there is no rescue.

But he is not all tragedy and hell fire.  Of singular delicacy, of exquisite proportions are his marbles of youth, of springtide, and the desire of life.  In 1900, at his special exhibition, Paris, Europe, and America awoke to these haunting visions.  Not since Keats or Swinburne has love been sung so sweetly, so romantically, so fiercely.  Though he disclaims understanding the Celtic spirit, one could say that there is Celtic magic, Celtic mystery in his work.  He pierces to the core the frenzy and joy of love and translates them in beautiful symbols.  Nature is for him the sole theme; his works are but variations on her promptings.  He knows the emerald route and all the semitones of sensuousness.  Fantasy, passion, even paroxysmal madness there are; yet what elemental power in his Adam as the gigantic first homo painfully heaves himself up from the earth to that posture which differentiates him from the beasts.  Here, indeed, the two natures are at strife.  And Mother Eve, her expression suggesting the sorrows and shames that are to be the lot of her seed; her very loins seem crushed by the ages that are hidden within them.  You may walk freely about the burghers of Calais, as did Rodin when he modelled them; that is one secret of the group’s vital quality.  About all his statues you may walk he is not a sculptor of one attitude, but a hewer of men and women.  Consider the Balzac.  It is not Balzac the writer of novels, but Balzac the prophet, the seer, the great natural force like Rodin himself.  That is why these kindred spirits converse across the years, as do the Alpine peaks in that striking parable of Turgenieff’s.  No doubt in bronze the Balzac will arouse less wrath from the unimaginative; in plaster it produces the effect of some surging monolith of snow.

As a portraitist of his contemporaries Rodin is the unique master of character.  His women are gracious, delicious masks; his men cover many octaves in virility and variety.  That he is extremely short-sighted has not been dealt with in proportion to the significance of this fact.  It accounts for his love of exaggerated surfaces, his formless extravagance, his indefiniteness in structural design; possibly, too, for his inability, or let us say lack of sympathy, for the monumental.  He is essentially a sculptor of the intimate emotions; he delineates passion as a psychologist; and while we think of him as a cyclops wielding a huge hammer destructively, he is often ardent in his search of subtle nuance.  But there is breadth even when he models an eyelid.  Size is only relative.  We are confronted by the paradox of an artist as torrential, as apocalyptic as Rubens and Wagner, carving with a style wholly charming a segment of a baby’s back so that you exclaim, “Donatello come to life!” His slow, defective vision, then, may have been his salvation; he seems to rely as much on his delicate tactile sense as on his eyes.  His fingers are as sensitive as a violinist’s.  At times he seems to model tone and colour.  A marvellous poet, a precise sober workman of art, with a peasant strain in him like Millet, and, like Millet, very near to the soil; a natural man, yet crossed by nature with a perverse strain; the possessor of a sensibility exalted, and dolorous; morbid, sick-nerved, and as introspective as Heine; a visionary and a lover of life, very close to the periphery of things; an interpreter of Baudelaire; Dante’s alter ego in his vast grasp of the wheel of eternity, in his passionate fling at nature; withal a sculptor, always profound and tortured, translating rhythm and motion into the terms of sculpture.  Rodin is a statuary who, while having affinities with both the classic and romantic schools, is the most startling artistic apparition of his century.  And to the century he has summed up so plastically and emotionally he has also propounded questions that only the unborn years may answer.  He has a hundred faults to which he opposes one imperious excellence a genius, sombre, magical, and overwhelming.