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Auguste Rodin: How The ‘Father’ Of Modern Sculpture Was Influenced By The Antique

Posted on 10 April 2017

"On prend pour une innovation, un retour aux lois des antiques." ("To innovate one must return to the laws of the Antique.") - Auguste Rodin

"He never claimed that he had introduced anything fresh, but that he had rediscovered what had long been lost by the academicians. The Greeks had possessed it, and so also had the Gothics. But in the official art of his day it was entirely lacking. His contribution to the secessionist movement was therefore an act of restoration. He was more of a revivalist than a revolutionary." - Anthony M. Ludovici, Personal Reminiscences of Auguste Rodin, 1926

We thought we'd bring you something different this week – so I am going to talk a little bit about sculpture for a change, focusing on the groundbreaking modernist works of the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).

When I was in my final year of an undergraduate Art History degree at the University of Bristol I took a course entitled 'The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture' that turned my academic interests away from nineteenth-century painting and towards sculpture of the same period. This course, run by Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn, was eye opening for me and the research has now been published in her book, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture (2012). I enjoyed the course so much that I went on to study for a Ph.D in the history of modern sculpture and reception theory and continue to research in the field to this day!

When we think of the term 'Modern Sculpture' some names may spring to mind: Henry Moore or Constantin Brâncusi, perhaps, whose early-twentieth-century works began to redefine the human figure, reducing it to more abstract forms:

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure (1951, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Wikimedia Commons.

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss (1907-8, Plaster Version Exhibited at the Armory Show and published in the Chicago Tribune, 25 March 1913). Wikimedia Commons. 

At the same time, Pablo Picasso brought Cubism to sculpture, constructing two-dimensional collages in three dimensions in a variety of non-traditional materials:

Pablo Picasso, Sculpture at the Daley Centre Plaza, Chicago. Image: Bruce Marlin, 2006. Wikimedia Commons.

And in 1917, Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal on its side, called it Fountain and signed it 'R. Mutt,' heralding the birth of the 'ready-made:'

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (Replica after original of 1917, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh). Wikimedia Commons.

But when discussing the beginnings of Modern Sculpture, many art historians will turn to the nineteenth-century French sculptor, Auguste Rodin.

Looking at one of Rodin's most celebrated and recognisable works, The Kiss (1901-4, Musée Rodin, Paris) it might not be immediately obvious to a twenty-first-century eye how we can call his representational work 'modern' and link it with that of the revolutionary sculptors that succeeded him. After all, we are looking at far more naturalistic and traditional manifestations of the human body in marble … aren't we?

Rodin, The Kiss (Musée Rodin, Paris). Wikimedia Commons. 

Not according to some sculpture historians! An exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1953 heralded Rodin's late-nineteenth century sculptures as a gateway into twentieth-century art. Leo Steinberg, reviewing the exhibition for the Art Digest in the same year, also saw Rodin's oeuvre as a turning point for sculptural representation that should be considered 'twentieth-century.' Of modern, twentieth-century sculpture Steinberg wrote:

"What is it that sets modern sculptures apart from their predecessors? To suggest that modern sculpture shows a greater preoccupation with plastic first principles is not enough. Modern sculpture is not merely more concerned with plastic form, but with a different kind of form, one answering to a radically new awareness of reality. The forms of contemporary sculpture are unstable and dynamic things; every transient shape implies a history, a growth, an evolution."

But how does Rodin's work fit in with this estimation of twentieth-century sculpture? This article discusses how Rodin's particular methods for reviving Classical sculpture led him to be considered a forerunner to Modernism in sculpture.

How is Rodin 'modern' in his approach to sculpture?

Steinberg went on to say that:

"Rodin does belong to [the twentieth-century] because in him, for the first time, we see firm flesh resolve itself into a symbol of perpetual flux. Rodin's anatomy is not the fixed law of each human body but the figurative configuration of a moment."

This suggests that Rodin's sculptures are not idealistic, inert representations of a living body but are more concerned with the portrayal of the vitality of life itself. This life that he managed to inject into his marbles and bronzes is key to their modernity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rodin preferred to work directly from nature (just like the Impressionists). It was traditional at the time for the Academies in France and Britain to teach the students of sculpture to copy directly from Classical statuary such as this:

After Myron, Discobolus (Roman Marble after a Bronze Original from c. 450-440 B.C, British Museum, London). Wikimedia Commons. 

But Rodin believed that the result of this was a very motionless, un-lifelike version of the human figure:

"Nature is all motion and an art that wished to give a faithful and conscientious interpretation of life could not make rest, that did not exist, its ideal." - Rodin

Although Classical sculpture had a major role to play in Rodin's work he did not think that one should merely plagiarise directly from the Ancients without first learning how to sketch from nature. The inspiration that Rodin took from the Greeks and Romans was their adoration of nature and their ability to represent it in a truthful and beautiful way. He felt that this had to be understood first before a student could successfully copy a Classical sculpture. In his Lesson of Antiquity of 1904, he wrote:

"if you give the Antique to a beginner who has never come directly to grips with Nature, he will understand nothing and lose his own character. You will turn him into a plagiarist who, instead of creating his own prayer to Nature, will merely repeat the prayer of the Antique without understanding the words."

Rodin didn't think that Classical sculpture itself was inert and motionless, quite the opposite, but he did feel that the modern practice of copying Classical sculptures without understanding them fully gave rise to inert and deadened Neo-Classicism.

So how did Rodin use his own interpretations of Classical sculpture to move away from Neo-Classical 'plagiarism' and bring vitality and life to his sculpture? Rainer Maria Rilke, a writer and great friend of Rodin's, suggested that it could be found in his emphasis on surface texture:

"Rodin had now discovered the fundamental element of his art; … it was the surface, - this differently great surface, variedly accentuated, accurately measured, out of which everything must rise, - which was from this moment the subject-matter of his art."

This can be seen in one of his first masterworks, The Man With The Broken Nose (1864, Musée Rodin, Paris):

Rodin, The Man with the Broken Nose (Cast After the Original, after 1917, Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Wikimedia Commons. 

This sculpture is often thought to be Rodin's homage to the great Italian Renaissance sculptor, Michelangelo, who supposedly had his nose broken by an artistic rival, Pietro Torrigiano. The head has an infinite number of different profiles because its surface is so varied in texture and sculpted depth. In bronze this variation is intensified due to the material's light reflecting qualities. Rilke commented that:

"this face had not been touched by life, it had been permeated through and through with it as though an inexorable hand had thrust it into fate and held it there as in the whirlpool of a washing, gnawing torrent."

The Man With The Broken Nose is not an idealized, smooth and beautiful version of a human face but is close to the reality of a living, functioning face with all the scars of age and life visible on its surface. It makes me think of the weathered face of a figure from a Gothic church façade, whose battered appearance suggests a passage of time, erosion and therefore, in a sense, a 'life:'

Head from Notre-Dame, Paris (13th Century, Musée National de Moyen-Âge, Paris). Wikimedia Commons. 

But Rodin's sculpture is not 'Gothic' or 'Baroque' in the derogatory senses of the words (these words were often used to describe periods in art where it was considered that artists focused too much on decadent decoration and emotion). Rodin has not overplayed the emotion in the weathered face but has maintained a feeling of balance and a sense of completion in this fragmented head. Rilke describes it as "beautiful for the sake of its perfection," commenting that this beauty is not "the result of the incomparable technique alone. It rises from the feeling of balance and equilibrium in all these moving surfaces, from the knowledge that all these moments of emotion originate and come to an end in the thing itself."

This contained movement is what makes Rodin's figures more Classical than Baroque, for in a Baroque sculpture, such as this one by Bernini, it is flamboyant, sweeping gesture away from the sculpture itself that denotes life:

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (c.1622, Galleria Borghese, Rome). Wikimedia Commons: Alvesgaspar.

In contrast, in Classical sculpture the idea of elapsed time and life do not go beyond the body itself. An example of this can be seen in the Nike of Samothrace (c.190 B.C, Louvre, Paris):

Nike of Samothrace (c.220-185 B.C., Louvre, Paris). Wikimedia Commons: Livioandronico2013.

Nothing here appears still. As Rilke points out: "This sculpture has not only brought down to us the movement of a beautiful maiden who goes to meet her lover, but it is at the same time an eternal picture of Hellenic wind in all its sweep and splendour." The body is alive in its own movement as well as in the forces acting upon it (in this case the movement of the 'Hellenic wind' through the drapery). The seemingly rippling drapery suggests elapsed time, which we can then equate with the striding forward of the leg. These contradicting forces allow its movement to be 'completed' within the boundaries of sculptural representation and it is therefore more naturalistically 'still' than the deathly stillness of Neo-Classical sculptures that Rodin despised.

We can compare the Nike with Rodin's Walking Man (1906, Musée Rodin):


Rodin, The Walking Man (Model After Original, c.1900-14, MoMA, New York). Creative Commons. 

The Walking Man is similarly striding forward. Or is he? "[The Walking Man] is not really walking," says Steinberg, "He is staking his claim on as much ground as his great wheeling stride will encompass. Though his body's axis leans forward, his rearward left heel refuses to lift." Looking more closely at the Walking Man it is apparent that Steinberg is correct.

The rear heel is firmly planted in the ground, as firmly as the forward heel. This, Steinberg claims, is completely untraditional. The pose is unbalanced and unnaturalistic, as if some force (like the wind of the Nike) were being exerted upon the figure that threatened to unbalance it if it did not ground itself. But we are to believe, from the title of the work, that this man is walking. Rather than portraying movement in gesture or in wholly balanced posture as in the Nike, Rodin has experimented with the method for portraying elapsed time literally, rather than in a snapshot moment. The Walking Man has therefore just begun his stride as well as having just completed it, both feet planted in readiness and finality.

This idea can be compared to later, twentieth-century works such as Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art). The passage of time is shown in the many stages of the nude's descent down the stairs:

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, MoMA, New York) also shows a figure almost wading forward through time and space:

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, MoMA, New York). Wikimedia Commons: Wmpearl.

So Rodin was reinterpreting Classical methods and then updating them to suit his own artistic goals – to bring a sense of 'truthful' movement and life to an art that seems to fundamentally deny movement.

Bringing Sculpture to Life

Rodin tried to overcome the problem of bringing sculpted forms to life in various ways. In the varied surfaces of his sculpture the movement of light allows for a more naturalistic, less deathly feel to the skin, immediately giving it life and vitality as discussed with regard to The Man With The Broken Nose.

It was also in the truth of imperfections that life could be brought to his sculptures, not only in the modeled features but also in the fragmentary nature of the sculptures themselves. Rodin was a fervent collector of Classical sculpture, especially fragments. He believed that fragmented sculpture had more character and individuality to it than a finished piece. A damaged, Ancient sculpture bears the scars of its long 'life,' in the same way that the Man With The Broken Nose bears his own scars of age and experience. Rodin believed that even a fragment could constitute a complete work of art. It was in fragments that Rodin "reached a full understanding of the Antique. Not the reconstituted version, with its imaginary perfection, that was taught to aspiring artists, but the Antique as it has come down to us now," as Ludovici, a close friend of Rodin's, explained.

Rodin believed that a sculpture 'stripped to its essentials by the destructive effects of time' was 'the embodiment of absolute beauty.' Of the Venus de Milo he said:

"Dismembered though you are, [to us] you are nonetheless complete. The destruction wrought by time has been permitted so that all may see the impotence of its impious endeavour."

Venus de Milo (c.130-100 B.C, Louvre, Paris). Wikimedia Commons: Livioandronico2013.

Again we can see this preoccupation that Rodin seemed to have with time and experience as a major factor for portraying life and nature.

"[An unfinished piece's] unpolished appearance means that, like life itself, it seems capable of developing further. This reveals the only true meaning … of the word 'finish;' To become part of life, to which there is no beginning or end, but only perpetual development. Any other interpretation of the word could have nothing but a negative, death-orientated meaning…" - Rodin

This idea can be linked with the work of Michelangelo, whose unfinished sculptures made a definitive impact on Rodin. The notion of leaving a sculpture unfinished so as not to deceive the viewer that they are looking at an imitation of life, merely a 'metamorphosing' figure that is developing towards life is a very religious one. The sculptor is a creator and the 'ultimate' Creator is God. Therefore, God can create life, man cannot, for man is inferior. A sculptor can therefore never fully imitate life in their work but can hint towards its creation by leaving things unfinished that the viewer can complete through their own knowledge of real life. It has been suggested that Michelangelo's unfinished works display a longing for the ideal, an ideal that his mere human hands could never create, as seen in this unfinished Young Slave (c.1525, Galleria d'Accademia, Florence) who seems to be struggling to free himself from the marble:

Michelangelo, Young Slave (c.1522, Galleria d'Accademia, Florence). Wikimedia Commons: Jörg Bittner Unna.

Rodin saw 'life' or 'the ideal' in his unfinished fragments, whose capacity for development allowed them to become almost metaphorical of life and idealism – for an ideal is something to be aspired to and aspiration is a part of life. When the ideal is reached there is no need for aspiration hence the ideal is beyond life, not part of it. 

Rodin's sculptures then become experiments into portraying life. Stripped to the bare minimum, they no longer needed the titles he bestowed upon them in earlier casts. His St. John the Baptist (below) became The Walking Man when the head and arms were severed. The subject has changed, it is no longer figurative and, therefore, what was a commemoration of St. John becomes an investigation in movement through time – an investigation into life:

Rodin, St. John the Baptist (c1880, Musée Rodin, Paris). Wikimedia Commons: Maarten.

Rodin, The Walking Man (Model After Original, c.1900-14, MoMA, New York). Creative Commons. 

Similarly, in La Pensée (c.1885, Musée D'Orsay, Paris) Rodin experimented with the nature of the marble material and how one might enliven it without completely shaping it into human form:

Rodin, La Pensée (1901, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Wikimedia Commons.

Ludovici recalls that "[Rodin] wanted the marble below to look as if the blood from that head were circulating through it." Indeed, through leaving the marble block upon which the head reposes roughly carved it almost appears, like the sculptures of Michelangelo, that the head is metamorphosing from stone into human as even the stone itself is developing into life. Another interesting quality of Rodin's sculptures, seen in La Pensée, is that they appear to have been conceived from the inside out (as a living being develops from a central cluster of cells) rather than hewn out of rock or modeled. This can be explained by looking at Rodin's description of his technique for modeling:

"Look at every part of a given form as the limit of a thickness rather than a surface in length, and every point in that form as the extremity of a diameter directed at you, rather than as a slope or plane stretching across your line of vision, and you will have grasped my method of seeing when I am modeling."

This 'three-dimensional' way of looking at a sculpture - turning it over, looking at it in the round - can also explain his feelings towards the reception of Classical sculpture. He believed that only an artist could judge a work of Classical sculpture in this manner because, unlike the archaeologist or the collector, only the artist possessed the experience for this means of 'seeing sculpture.' For when one looks at a sculpture (especially one in marble), one considers it in terms of the space which it occupies, whereas an artist has to overcome problems of disposing of the 'unoccupied' space around it. An artist has to envisage it emerging from the block from which it was hewn, as can be seen in Rodin's famous The Kiss:

Rodin, The Kiss (Musée Rodin, Paris). Wikimedia Commons. 

Rodin's use of Classical sculpture is therefore more sophisticated than a mere borrowing of its motifs or methods. One could almost consider him a 'modern Classicist,' that is, a Classical artist working in the nineteenth century. He preferred to model from nature, just as the Classical sculptors would have done, rather than reinterpreting Classical sculpture in the manner of a plagiarist. Rodin was not trying merely to refer to Classicism by using Classical motifs in his modern work. It seems more like he was trying to modernize Classical art by going back to its original subject – nature - and experimenting with the same difficulties that the Classical sculptors faced when trying to depict life in stone or bronze.

There are countless fragmented sculptures by Rodin that experiment with enlivening the inert. Rodin saw fragments as the true modern experience of the Classical and any attempts to complete these fragments were not truthful to the original. One could still gain a sense of the original from looking at the fragments themselves. He therefore fragmented his own work, stripping it down to the bare essentials, casting off any anecdotal or unnecessary elements such as faces, hands and bodies. This allowed him to reduce the figure to its 'truthful' core and therefore a fragment can be as complete in its exploration of a living form than a 'whole' piece. As Rilke puts it:

"Nothing necessary is lacking. One stands before [Rodin's sculptures] as before something whole. The feeling of incompleteness does not rise from the mere aspect of a thing, but from the assumption of a narrow-minded pedantry, which says that arms are a necessary part of the body and that a body without arms cannot be perfect. It was not long since that rebellion arose against the cutting off of trees from the edges of the pictures by the Impressionists. Custom rapidly accepted this impression. With regard to the painter, at least, came the understanding and the belief that an artistic whole need not necessarily coincide with the complete thing, that new values, proportions and balances may originate within the pictures. In the art of sculpture, also, it left to the artist to make out of many things one thing, and from the smallest part of a thing an entirety."

Here, Rilke compares Rodin's technique to that of the Impressionists, whose experiments in light and texture gave vitality to their natural scenes. But Rodin was not merely playing with light and texture. His sculptural medium allowed him to integrate the space around his forms, as Sternberg has said: "what enlivens Rodin's forms is the implication always of some pressure or spatial turbulence to which these forms are exposed." By introducing outward forces to balance the gestures of his sculptural fragmented 'figures' we can at once see a reaction between one and the other, a sense that not only is the sculpture existing inert, but that it is constantly battling against exterior forces to remain inert.

In this article I have only touched upon a handful of Rodin's fragmentary sculptures but there are many more. His interest in fragmentation, metamorphosis and reducing some of the figurative elements of his sculptures are what sets him apart as one of the forerunners for modern sculpture of the twentieth century.

Thanks for reading! 

Dr. Charlotte Drew



Aspley, Keith and Cowling, Elizabeth and Sharratt, Peter (eds.). From Rodin to Giacometti: Sculpture and Literature in France 1880-1950 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000).

Barolsky, Paul. 'As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art,' Renaissance Quarterly, 51:2 (Summer 1998): 451-74.

Breuer, David et al. (eds.). Rodin. exh. cat. (London: Royal Academy, 2006).

Champigneulle, Bernard. Rodin (trans. by Brownjohn, J. Maxwell) (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967).

Grunfeld, Frederic V, Rodin: A Biography. (Hutchinson, 1987).

Ludovici, Anthony. M. Personal Reminiscences of Auguste Rodin (London: John Murray, 1926).

Mitchell, Claudine (ed.). Rodin: The Zola of Sculpture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2004).

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture (I. B. Tauris, 2012).

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rodin (trans. by Lemont, Jessie and Trausil, Hans) (London: Grey Walls Press Ltd, 1946).

Steinberg, Leo. Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).


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