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Instead, Rodin served a long and difficult apprenticeship. For many years, he was employed as a modeller in the Paris studio of the highly successful and prolific sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824–1887), and later, during the economic chaos that followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, he followed Carrier-Belleuse to Belgium, where he continued as an assistant in the sculptor's temporarily transplanted studio. There he became a partner of the Belgian Antoine (Joseph) Van Rasbourgh in the execution of monumental stone sculptures that included the allegorical groups of Africa and Asia for the Brussels Bourse.
While in Brussels, Rodin also modelled a number of decorative female figures and busts of young women, some in peasant dress and others wearing flowers or fruit in their hair, to which he began to sign his own name. The bust of a young woman wreathed in grapes belongs to this period, during which his work in the medium of terracotta was still very strongly influenced by the kind of modelling he had done in the studio of Carrier-Belleuse.
In 1876, Rodin travelled to Italy, stopping along the way in a number of French cities, including Rheims, where his first-hand acquaintance with the cathedral contributed to what would be a lifelong love for medieval French architecture, ultimately expressed in his 1914 publication, Les cathédrales de France. In Italy, he was deeply impressed by the work of Michelangelo, which would influence his own sculpture for years to come. This experience provided a rich foundation for the series of nude male figures that he began to create in the late 1870s: The Bronze Age), Saint John the Baptist, and the first studies for Adam. The Bronze Age, or The Age of Bronze, as it is more often titled in English, was the first full-scale figure that Rodin exhibited publicly under his own name, initially in 1877, at the Cercle Artistique in Brussels and later that year in the Paris Salon of the Société des Artistes Français. Although the initial display in Paris of the plaster model for the figure created a storm of criticism, the first bronze cast from the plaster model was exhibited without further controversy in the Paris Salon of 1880. Official recognition came in the form of the purchase of the bronze by the French Ministry of Fine Arts for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The Adam, also known as The Creation of Man, although not finished until 1881, was directly inspired by two of Michelangelo's masterpieces.
The Gates of Hell, a monumental portal covered with sculptural relief, was Rodin's first commission from the French government. Edmond Turquet, newly appointed Under Secretary of Fine Arts and an admirer of Rodin's sculpture, commissioned the work on August 16, 1880, for a projected Musée des Arts Décoratifs to be built on the site of what is now the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Rodin quickly produced a number of ideas, both on paper and in clay, for a vast composition based loosely on Dante's Divine Comedy. The Adam, together with the pendant Eve that can be seen in the background of Edward Steichen's photograph of Rodin in his studio, were not original to Rodin's plans for The Gates of Hell. They vanished from The Gates quite early in its evolution but their meaning is evident: on one side, the Michelangelesque Adam, the first man, slowly and reluctantly comes to life; on the other, Eve in her shame represents the source of humankind's fall from grace.
Rodin's commission set a date in 1885 for the delivery of the door, but the work was still unfinished at that time, and in fact The Gates was never to be cast in bronze during the sculptor's lifetime. Owing to the great size (21 feet high) and continuous, unbroken composition of The Gates, the clay models for individual figures and sections of the relief could not be prevented from drying out and crumbling during the decades that Rodin remained at work on the project. Rodin removed them from the framework of the portal and preserved them in the more permanent form of plaster. In the process, he began to isolate, modify, and recombine them. Many figures were finished in the round, enlarged, and cast in bronze or terracotta or carved in marble for collectors who purchased them as individual sculptures. Such sculptures as The Old Courtesan and Orpheus and Eurydice had their origins in the method of working that Rodin employed to deal with the vast composition of The Gates. Thus, The Gates of Hell became a major source of the wealth of individual sculptures that Rodin created during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century.
Rodin's next major commission, The Burghers of Calais, was in no small measure prompted by a deliberate policy of raising morale after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing Commune by creating public monuments to patriotic Frenchmen. In 1884, the Municipal Council of Calais voted to honour one of their heroes, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the leader of six prosperous citizens of Calais who offered themselves as hostages to the English king Edward III (r. 1327–77) in return for lifting his siege of the city. Rodin proposed that the monument include all six men and supplied a maquette, or sketch model, of the six that won the commission, which was signed on January 28, 1885. Rodin soon began to model hands, feet, heads, and torsos, which he assembled in various ways, modified, or discarded until the figures took their final form. Then he set about reorienting and rearranging them, a process that lasted a decade. His abandonment of the traditional vocabulary of allegorical symbols in favour of individual poses and gestures that reveal character were innovations that brought his work into conflict with accepted formulas for public monuments.
Rodin had strong support among certain influential critics and government officials, however, and public commissions followed throughout the remainder of the century. These included monuments to Jules Bastien-Lepage (1886), Claude Lorrain (1889), Victor Hugo (1891), Honoré de Balzac (1891), and President Sarmiento of Argentina (1894). The Monument to Victor Hugo was planned as part of a grand scheme for sculptural monuments commemorating various heroes and philosophers of the French Revolution to be placed inside the Panthéon in Paris along with a funerary monument to Victor Hugo (1802–1885), the most famous author and poet of nineteenth-century France. A subcommittee was formed in 1889, and after deliberating plans for the sculptural program and making a list of sculptors who would be invited to participate, they awarded the choice commission for the monument to Rodin. Surviving models made in 1889 or 1890 establish Rodin's conception of the work in this period. The subcommittee at first seemed pleased with the project, but doubts about its suitability for the Panthéon scheme began to surface; politics undoubtedly played a role, and in the end the committee rejected the maquette that Rodin submitted. Rodin them embarked upon a second, quite different, project now known as The Apotheosis of Victor Hugo, a triangular composition depicting Hugo standing on the rocky shore of the Channel island of his exile, with Iris, Messenger of the Gods, flying above his head and the Sirens from The Gates of Hell emerging from the waves below. The project occupied Rodin from about 1890 to 1894, but by the end of the period, government interest had cooled, and Rodin never went further than the models he made for this version of the monument. Following his earlier practice with the sculptures from The Gates of Hell, Rodin extracted a number of the figures from the various models for the Monument to Victor Hugo and presented them as independent sculptures. These include the Iris, Messenger of the Gods in an enlarged and truncated version.
The French government, however, had not altogether abandoned the idea for a monument, and in 1891 Rodin was commissioned to provide a marble, based on the models for the first version of the monument, for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The marble monument was ultimately unveiled in the gardens of the Palais Royal in 1909, and in 1933 it was moved to the Musée Rodin in Paris, where it can be seen today. In this version of the monument, Rodin relied heavily on the portrait of Hugo that he had modelled in 1883. Some of the sketches he made in preparation for the bust were reproduced in a series of prints executed in drypoint by Rodin himself. The Victor Hugo, Three-Quarter View is believed to represent Rodin's initial impression of the poet.
In July 1891, the Société des Gens de Lettres commissioned a monument to the French writer Honoré de Balzac to be erected at the Palais Royal. Rodin made numerous preparatory studies for the figure in an effort to create a vivid image of the author, who had died in 1850. One of the studies, a terracotta head, comes from the early stages of Rodin's work on the monument. Many more followed for the head alone. Rodin also modelled several versions of the full figure, some with heads, some without, some wearing monk's robes, some in contemporary dress, and some wearing nothing at all, before settling on a dressing gown of the kind that is known to have been the author's preferred working costume. Meanwhile, Rodin was missing one deadline after another for delivery of the finished monument. The final figure created a furore, and it was rejected by the Société, as much for its entanglement in dissension within the membership as for the brutal power of the image itself, for which Société members were unprepared.
By the 1890s, Rodin's commissions enabled him to employ a number of studio assistants, some who would later become well-known sculptors in their own right. Among them were Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), François Pompon (1855–1933), and Jules Desbois (1851–1935). Even earlier, Camille Claudel (1864–1943) had become a studio assistant, as well as Rodin's model and mistress in a relationship that ended unhappily in 1893, in part owing to Rodin's reluctance to abandon his lifelong companion Rose Beuret. Although Rodin was himself a skilled marble carver, the later marbles are for the most part products of Rodin's studio, careful renditions of the plaster working models cast from his autograph models in clay.
In 1900, Rodin erected his own pavilion in the Place de l'Alma to coincide with the Paris Exposition Universelle and filled it with 150 of his sculptures. Success had brought numerous private commissions and commissions for portraits. It has been said that Rodin's portraits of men display deeper psychological insight into their character than his portraits of women, which tend toward softer, more circumspect portrayals. Although not commissioned, the sketches of the Japanese actress Hanako belie this characterization. So, too, does the unfinished portrait of Madame X, which apparently so deeply upset the subject that when the marble was nearly finished she refused it.
The increasingly erotic character of Rodin's sculpture in the 1880s can be explained by his preoccupation with two highly charged literary sources. These were Dante's Inferno and Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil. In Dante's epic poem, Rodin seems to have been most deeply impressed by those who were damned by the sins of the flesh, while Baudelaire's poetry is notoriously satanic in nature. Many of Rodin's later drawings of female figures, both alone and together, are as sexually explicit as they are remarkable for the freedom and spontaneity of their draftsmanship. Often they are the products of the sculptor's attempt to capture the human form in motion by making quick sketches without ever taking his eyes from the human model. Some of these sketches, for example the one titled Nero, he reworked making corrections or adding colour.
The marble group Eternal Spring, sometimes called Eternal Springtime, was first titled Zephyr and Earth, and it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1897 as Cupid and Psyche, both calculated to lend a certain respectability to the eroticism of the subject. By 1900, however, Rodin felt free to include both the suggestive Eternal Spring and the explicit Iris, Messenger of the Gods in his retrospective exhibition, as well as numerous sculptural fragments and partial figures. Two torsos, one cast in bronze, had been among the sculptures Rodin presented to his public in the joint exhibition with Claude Monet held in 1889 at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. Although the plaster hands and the terracotta torso in the Metropolitan Museum's collection were not among the avant-garde works that were displayed either in 1889 or in 1900, they were Rodin's gift to the Museum in 1912, and they were clearly meant to be accepted as works of art in themselves.
In some instances, these sculptural fragments can be recognized as parts of completed sculptures, but more often it is not possible either to identify them or to date them with any degree of certainty. Rodin also began giving bases to some of his fragments, making small, independent sculptures of them; others he combined to create strange, sometimes bizarre, hybrid forms. The giant hand that cradles small male and female figures in a sculptural group known as The Hand of God is the product of this working method.
Success also brought exhibitions throughout northern Europe and North America. In 1912, a gallery devoted entirely to his work opened at the Metropolitan Museum. In 1916, Rodin bequeathed his collection to France. It contained his own sculptures, his working models with the casting rights, as well as drawings, paintings, photographs, and documents of various kinds. In return, he required that the French government establish a museum dedicated to his art. The Musée Rodin is now housed in Paris in the eighteenth-century Hôtel Biron that had been the sculptor's studio in the later years of his life.