Rodin and America: The artist’s influence in the United States

Bernard Barryte

Bernard Barryte Art


from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011 |

Fig. 1. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), 1907. Photogravure (from Camera Work: A Photographic Quarterly, April-July 1911); 9 ½ by 6 ½ inches. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, gift of the William R. Rubin Foundation.

By 1900 it was common to liken Auguste Rodin (Fig. 1) to Michelangelo, to compare him favorably to the great sculptors of antiquity, and simultaneously to identify him as the paradigm of modernity-and these plaudits were not seen as contradictory. One can assess his perceived importance by the numerous books and articles devoted to him during his lifetime and by the plethora of obituaries published on his death. These appeared not only in art journals but also in newspapers and popular magazines, for the sculptor had become a celebrity in the modern sense of the term: his life, as well as his art, was consid­ered newsworthy. Another measure of his fame is the number of celebratory portraits painted by Americans, including John White Alexander (see p. 153, Fig. 6); the short-lived Walter Florian, who published an account of the sitting in the New York Times;1 and Morgan Russell, the co-founder of Synchromism (Fig. 4). In short, the generation of artists maturing in the first decades of the twentieth century had to conjure with Rodin’s overwhelming presence, and while subsequent his­tories acknowledged the influence he exerted in Europe and the United States, the characteristics of that influence were generally ill defined. Clarifying the manner in which Rodin’s influence manifested itself in the United States is the goal of Rodin and America, an exhibition on view at Stanford Univer­sity’s Cantor Arts Center until January 1, 2012.

Fig. 2. Flying Figure by Rodin, 1890-1891 and c. 1895, cast 1978 (9/12). Bronze; height 21, width 31, depth 12 inches. Can­tor Arts Center, gift of B. Gerald Cantor and Company.





Fig. 3. Study for a Female Dancer by Malvina Hoff­man (1885-1966), c. 1912, cast posthumously. Bronze; height 14 ¾, width 5 ½, depth 3 ½ inches. Fine Arts Muse­ums of San Francisco, gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

Aspiring artists became ac­quainted with Rodin’s art and artistic principles through the multitude of publications and through exhibitions and collec­tions that began to accumulate, particularly in Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Fran­cisco. As his reputation grew, many American artists sought to learn more. For example, in 1910 Malvina Hoffman traveled to Paris determined to study with the sculptor. On her fifth attempt to be admitted to his studio, she happened to mention Kate Simpson, who was both a friend and patron of Rodin. This gained her entrée and gave rise to a mutually beneficial friend­ship in which Rodin offered artistic advice and Hoffman helped organize his drawings, among other practical duties.

Hoffman’s desire to learn from Rodin was far from unique. The sculptor Lorado Taft traveled to Calais in 1895 to see The Burghers of Calais installed, and many younger American artists sent photographs to Rodin, hoping for a critique from the master. Others who studied in France visited his atelier and some, like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the African-American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, persuaded him to visit their Parisian studios to comment on their work. But fascination with Rodin was not limited to sculptors. Working in a lithography shop in Milwaukee and still unde­cided between painting and photography, Edward Steichen was inspired by a newspaper illustration of Rodin’s Monument to Honoré de Balzac (see Fig. 5) to travel to Paris to meet the maker of this con­troversial statue. But what precisely did such en­thusiasm for Rodin signify? What fascinated these artists? And how was their fascination manifested in their work? These are among the questions ad­dressed by Rodin and America.

Rodin’s trajectory to international fame was far from linear or inevitable. Born into a lower-middle-class family with no artistic heritage, he studied at the Petit École, which trained craftsmen, and tried to transfer to the École des Beaux-Arts, which trained fine artists, but thrice failed the ex­amination. He then spent years in the studios of established artists and only came to public notice as the result of an especially insulting accusation: the judges for the 1877 Salon initially rejected The Age of Bronze in the false belief that he had cast the svelte youth from a living person rather than actu­ally modeling the extraordinarily lifelike statue (Fig. 6). Finally vindicated three years later, the state awarded the forty-year-old sculptor a commission to design doors for a proposed museum of decora­tive arts that eventually resulted in the monumen­tal Gates of Hell. Other commissions followed, and the works he produced evinced further innovations that stirred additional controversies.

Rejecting idealization, his Burghers of Calais helped transform the public monument, while the effect of instantaneity achieved in Monument to Claude Lor­raine caused critics to align-or malign him-with the impressionists. In 1898 his Monument to Honoré de Balzac-neither an allegory nor precisely a portrait but rather an evocation of the author’s genius-proved disconcerting to many and provoked Rodin’s public humiliation when the commissioning organization rejected it. In addition to challenging conventions in these large-scale works, the sculptor also broke with academic tradition by exhibiting partial figures as self-sufficient works of art.

Consistently inventive as well as exceedingly prolific, Rodin was also a brilliant self-promoter. It was said, for example, that he never declined an interview, and he aggrandized his celebrity status by sending signed photographs of himself and his works to prospective clients and current patrons and by organizing a massive retro­spective for himself in a building near the entrance to the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Although he occasionally worked with dealers such as Georges Petit in Paris (most notably in a joint exhibition with Claude Monet in 1889) and Alfred Stieglitz in New York, his success depended largely on the efforts of various admirers. In the United States these included the Chicago tastemaker and curator Sarah Tyson Hallowell; the Boston mandarin Henry Adams; the avant-garde dancer Loïe Fuller, who organized his first New York exhibition in 1903; as well as Kate Simpson, wife of a prominent New York attorney, who promoted his work to collectors and museums in New York, Boston, and Cleveland. In addition, critics such as Truman H. Bartlett, who published the first substantial analy­sis of the sculptor in 1889,2 and journalists who reported on his activities disseminated his artistic ideas and spread his reputation widely. As a result, by the 1890s he was sought after as a portraitist by prominent Americans such as Bertha Honoré Palmer and Thomas Fortune Ryan, who subsidized the creation of the Rodin gallery that opened in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1912. In 1899 the critic Arsène Alexandre noted, “The Americans who are best informed about French art have told me more than once, ‘the artist we know and like best in France is your Rodin.'”3

Fig. 4. Homage to Rodin by Morgan Russell (1886-1953), 1910-1911. Oil on canvas, 35 ½ by 28 ½ inch­es. Regis Collection, Minne­apolis.





Fig.5. Final Study for “Monument to Honoré de Balzac [1799-1850]” by Ro­din, c. 1897. cast by the George Rudier Foundry, 1976 (12/12). Bronze; height 43 ½ inches. Cantor Arts Center, gift of the B. Gerald Cantor Collection.

Fig. 6. The Age of Bronze by Rodin, 1875-1876, cast c. 1920. Bronze, height 71 inches. Cantor Arts Center, gift of the B. Gerald Cantor Collection.

Rodin was renowned as a stubborn follower of his own aesthetic vision so it is hardly surprising that young artists found inspiration in him. Writ­ing in 1912, Muriel Ciolkowska described this period as one of “painful artistic unrest, when anxious research often took the place of definite realization, and theories, of productiveness. For, those who were not content servilely to imitate their nearest successful predecessors, strained after what art might have to yield that it had not already yielded. In this respect the twentieth century’s dawn will hold a very remarkable…position in the evolu­tion of the…‘fine arts.'”4 If the accomplishments of this generation have been swamped by the suc­cession of stylistic “isms” that proliferated during the twentieth century, the efforts of these Rodin-inspired modernists can be seen as establishing the foundation for later, more radical developments. Most importantly, the Americans did not merely adopt Rodin’s devices; rather their work reveals a process of absorption and interpretation as they adapted and transformed facets of his art for their own aesthetic purposes.

Judging by the many published responses to Rodin’s work, the aspects that were most compel­ling to artists were his drawing style; the natural­istic portrayal of intense emotion and the overtly erotic; the reinvigoration of the figure in relief; the will to suggest lifelike motion; and the partial figure. Although he is best known as a sculptor, Rodin drew incessantly as he modeled figures and the vocabulary he developed had a profound impact in this realm. Originally working in a relatively traditional manner, he began in the 1890s to produce drawings in which volume and a sense of motion were achieved by an energetic outline augmented by watercolor washes (see Fig. 7), the overlap producing a novel sense of light and movement in figures that were defiantly two-dimensional yet dynamic in space. This technique intrigued artists as different as the sculptor George Grey Barnard (Fig. 9) and the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, whose formal experiments in this idiom (Fig. 8) paralleled a new awareness of her own sensuous nature.5

Rodin had a similar transformative effect on how artists conceived of the monument. As in his por­traits, in The Burghers of Calais (1895) Rodin re­jected idealization, seeking instead to convey the inner spirit as well as the outward appearance of his figures. His aesthetic pervades Lorado Taft’s The Blind (Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Meta Warrick Fuller’s The Wretched (Fig. 11), which was first exhibited in 1902 at Siegfried Bing’s prestigious Maison de l’Art Nouveau gallery. Though small in scale, this complex bronze is monumental in content, employ­ing the figural vocabulary of Rodin’s Burghers to express a pessimism more profound even than in his Gates of Hell: “There is the woman who suffers from loss-her child or a loved one….There is the man who hides his face in shame. The old man ready to die in poverty….The youth who realizes the task before him he can never complete….Top­ping them all is the philosopher who suffers through his understanding and sympathy, so there is no glint of hope in any of these.”6

Rodin’s decades of work on The Gates of Hell helped reinvigorate relief sculpture, which had been relegated almost exclusively to an ornamental role by the end of the nineteenth century. As writers commented on the extraordinary cascade of figures writhing on the massive portal and as Rodin exhibited sculpture drawn from it, he revealed new expressive possibilities for both high and low relief. This potential was explored not only by sculptors such as Robert Baker (Fig. 12) but also-rather surprisingly-by photographers such as Frank Eugene, who transformed his ut­terly flat medium into an approximation of relief in Adam and Eve (Fig. 10).

Fig. 7. Drawing by Rodin, 1911. Photogravure (from Camera Work, April-July 1911), 11 ½ by 8 ⅛ inches. Philadelphia Muse­um of Art, gift of Carl Zigrosser.

Fig. 8. Nude No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), 1917. Watercolor on paper, 12 by 8 ⅞ inches. Georgia O’Keeffe Muse­um, Santa Fe, New Mexico, gift of the Burnett Foundation and the Georgia O’Keeffe Founda­tion.

Fig. 9. Seated Male Nude by George Grey Barnard (1863-1938). Graphite, black ink, and brown transparent wash on paper, 10 by 7 ⅞ inches. University Mu­seums, University of Delaware, Newark, gift of Anthony Barnard and the Barnard Family.

Fig. 10. Adam and Eve by Frank Eugene (1865-1936), c. 1905. Photogravure (from Camera Work, April 1910), 7 by 5 inches. George Eastman House, Interna­tional Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, New York.

Fig. 11. The Wretched by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), c. 1901. Bronze, height 17, width 21, depth 15 inches. Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, Washington, gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

Fig. 12. Sanctuary of Dreams by Robert P. Baker (1886-1940), c. 1919. Bronze; height 19 ½, width 10, depth 11 ¾ inches. SmithsonianAmerican Art Museum, Washington, D. C., gift of Bryant Baker.

Fig. 13. Male Torso by Jo Da­vidson (1883-1952), c. 1910. Bronze and burgundy lime­stone; height 22, width 10, depth 12 inches. Courtesy of ConnerRosenkranz, New York.

Fig. 14. Temptation (also known as Fantasie and Nymph and Faun) by Harriet Frish­muth (1880-1980), 1922. Bronze, height 11 ½ inches. Wadsworth Atheneum Muse­um of Art, Hartford, Connecti­cut, purchased through a gift of Henry and Walter Keney.

Fig. 15. Torso by Stieglitz and Clarence H. White (1871-1925), 1907-1908. Photogra­vure (from Camera Work, July 1909), 11 ¾ by 8 ¼ inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Zigrosser gift.

Fig. 16. Cocteau’s Hands by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), 1927. Gelatin silver print (printed 1970s), 10 ⅛ by 13 ½ inches. Courtesy of Commerce Graphics, New York.

At least since the creation of The Age of Bronze, Rodin had exerted himself to imbue his sculpture with a sense of life and movement. This impulse is at least part of the explanation for his use of a non-finito, or unfinished, technique, which may have been inspired by properties he discovered in works Michelangelo had abandoned, but which he transformed into an expressive device adopted by many followers. In Rodin’s hands, intention­ally rough finishes create a multitude of shadows and highlights that animate surfaces, instilling a sense of process and time in works that are by definition static. The desire to animate apparent in works such as Flying Figure (Fig. 2) opened the door for further experimentation, as in the pas­sionate pas de deux that is Harriet Frishmuth’s Temptation (Fig. 14). The significance of these animated partial figures is revealed in part in an anecdote reported by Malvina Hoffman. As she was showing Rodin the figure of a dancer of which she was particularly proud, the clay dropped. Rodin pointed out that the surviving fragment (Fig. 3) was self-sufficient: “What remains is quite sufficient to express your meaning. This fragment suggests the rhythm of the dance and the balance of the whole figure.”7

However, Rodin’s most profound and enduring legacy was his introduction of the partial figure as a fully realized work of art.8 Not only did sculptors such as Jo Davidson (Fig. 13) immediately appreciate the rich potential of this concept, but art­ists working in other mediums also recog­nized the visual drama inherent in aes­thetic amputation. Its appeal is evident in the meticulously cropped Torso (Fig. 15) composed by Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence H. White, and its emotional richness is fundamental to the impact of Berenice Abbott’s synecdochic portrait of Jean Cocteau (Fig. 16).

Rodin and America represents a focused attempt to illuminate the scope and character of Rodin’s impact on a generation of American artists. Re­sponding to facets of Rodin’s innovations in various personal ways, they once constituted art’s avant garde. Their accomplishments, however, were soon overshadowed by a succession of radical artistic movements, several of them built on foundations Rodin had helped construct. In addition to analyz­ing the character of Rodin’s impact, the exhibition offers an opportunity to reconsider a neglected generation of American artists.

1 “How Walter Florian Did Rodin’s Portrait,” New York Times, Janu­ary 1, 1905. The portrait is in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 2 His ten-part article, published in 1889 in the influential American Architect and Building News, is reprinted in Auguste Rodin, Readings on his Life and Work, ed. Albert Elsen (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965), pp. 13-109. It remains one of the best sources for infor­mation about the development of Rodin’s artistry and aesthetic prin­ciples. Today, the most incisive biography of the sculptor is Ruth But­ler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1993). 3 Arsène Alexandre, “Croquis d’après Rodin,” Le Fi­garo, July 21, 1899, p. 4. 4 Muriel Ciolkowska, Rodin (Methuen and Company, London, 1912), p. 1. 5 Barbara Buhler Lynes, “Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916 and 1917: My Own Tune,” in Modern Art and Amer­ica: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries, ed. Sarah Greenough (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., and Bulfinch Press, Bos­ton, 2000), p. 269. 6 Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller to Clifford Dolph (director of the Maryhill Museum of Art), February 18, 1948, Ar­chives, Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, Washington. 7 Quot­ed in Malvina Hoffman, Yesterday is Tomorrow, A Personal History (Crown, New York, 1965), p. 125. 8 See Albert Elsen, The Partial Fig­ure in Modern Sculpture from Rodin to 1969 (Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Md., 1969).

BERNARD BARRYTE is curator of European art at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, and organizer of the exhibition Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876-1936.