Suzon by Auguste Rodin
Suzon by Auguste Rodin
François-Auguste-René Rodin, born on November 12, 1840, in Paris, France, revolutionized the art of sculpture with his profound understanding of the human body and its expressive potential. Widely regarded as the progenitor of modern sculpture, Rodin's career, spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marked a departure from the idealized forms of his predecessors. His ability to infuse static materials with a sense of life, emotion and movement established him as a pivotal figure in art history.

Personal Background

Rodin's journey into the arts began at a young age, showing early promise with his drawing skills at the Ecole Impériale Spéciale de Dessin et Mathematiques, or 'Petite Ecole.' Despite facing three rejections from the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, Rodin continued to hone his craft as a self-taught artist. In 1862, the compiled rejections coupled with the death of his sister led the sculptor to abandon art and become a Catholic monk, taking on the name Brother Augustin in the Order of the Blessed Sacrament. While Rodin embraced monastic life, the founder of the Order recognized Rodin's talent in sculpture and encouraged him to abandon the Order and follow his true calling as an artist.

Mask of the Man with a Broken Nose by Rodin. Modeled 1863-1864, Cast 1925. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Returning to decorative arts in Paris, Rodin began working on his debut submission to the Paris Salon, an extremely competitive public art exhibition. For the piece, Rodin hired his first model, a handyman named Bibi who was local to the neighborhood of his tiny horse stable-turned-studio. Rodin was drawn to the roughness of Bibi’s features, choosing to include his broken nose and hard-worked face. The Mask of the Man with a Broken Nose, originally a bust before the back of the head broke off due to a cold front that froze the clay head in his drafty studio, was twice rejected by the traditionalist Salon, which favored idealized portraits. Nevertheless, Rodin considered the work his earliest major work and a signifier of his adoption of realist sculpting.
At this time, Rodin met Rose Beuret, a seamstress with whom he would stay for 53 years until his death. The two had a son, Auguste-Eugène Beuret, and Rose helped supplement his paltry income by working while simultaneously raising their son.

Early Career and Influences

In 1875, Rodin visited Italy for two months, where he studied the works of Michelangelo, Dante, and the sculptures of antiquity. Michelangelo’s work struck a chord with Rodin as he recalled, “My liberation from academicism was via Michelangelo. He is the bridge by which I passed from one circle to another.” These influences and his fascination with the human form and its expressive capabilities would become central themes in his later work.
In his early career, Rodin worked primarily as a craftsman and ornament designer, slowly building his reputation through small commissions. His first breakthrough came with The Age of Bronze (1877), a life-sized figure so lifelike that it caused a scandal— critics accused him of casting the work from a living model, a claim that Rodin vehemently denied. This controversy, however, only served to cement his reputation as a sculptor capable of capturing life in bronze and stone. Only three years later, the French state purchased the work.

Maturity and Magnum Opus

The Gates of Hell by Rodin. Modeled 1880-1917, Cast 1926-1928. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The commission of The Gates of Hell (1880-1917) by the French Ministry of the Arts marked the beginning of Rodin's mature period. Intended for a new decorative arts museum in Paris, the monumental project, inspired by Dante's Inferno and Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs de Mal, became a lifelong endeavor that was never completed to Rodin's satisfaction. Working feverishly throughout his entire career, Rodin created over 200 figures and groups to decorate the gates. Nonetheless, it spawned some of his most famous individual works, including The Thinker and The Kiss.
The Kiss by Rodin. 1901-04. Tate Collection.
At this time, Rodin’s career gained major recognition, especially by fashionable society people. When not working on The Gates of Hell, Rodin modeled portrait busts as gestures of friendship or thanks, such as Rodin’s silvered bronze bust Mrs. Russell. During this period, Rodin also had many assistants in his studio, creating plaster casts of his models or working with foundries to complete the bronze sculptures.
Plaster Cast of Mrs. Russell by Rodin. Modeled ca. 1890, Cast before 1913. The Met.

Later Career and Innovations

Throughout his later career, Rodin continued to explore the dynamic interplay between light, shadow, and form. Works like Monument to Balzac (1898) and The Burghers of Calais (1889) exemplify his departure from traditional sculptural techniques, favoring rough surfaces and unfinished elements that suggest movement and inner turmoil.
The Burghers of Calais by Rodin. Modeled 1884-1895, Cast 1919-1921. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In 1884, Rodin took on another monumental project, The Burghers of Calais. The mayor of Calais chose Rodin on the spot after visiting his studio to commemorate the heroism of six leaders (burghers). In 1377, during the Hundred-Years’ War, six burghers volunteered to be hostages to the English King, Edward III, in exchange for lifting the 11-month siege of Calais. Their unwavering sacrifice is immortalized in Rodin’s most well-known public monument, where they are shown humbly taking their last steps to execution, though they would ultimately be spared. Rodin's unconventional methods and his emphasis on capturing fleeting moments of emotion and thought paved the way for future generations of sculptors.
Another forgotten aspect of Rodin’s artistic output was his emphasis on photography's utility and artistic integrity. Beginning in the early 1870s, only 30 years after the invention of the daguerreotype, Rodin photographed each of his works as soon as they were shown at Salons to broaden the publication of his artwork to a wider audience. Although he mainly used photography for documentary purposes, Rodin also employed photographers to capture his sculptures more artistically. In 1896, at an exhibition of his work held in Geneva, Rodin exhibited 71 photographs next to his sculptures and drawings. At the time of his death, Rodin's collection and archives held more than 7,000 prints. His early acceptance of photography at a time when its merits were highly controversial aided in the acceptance of photography as a form of art in its own right.
Portrait de Rodin dans son Atelier. 1905. Musée Rodin.

Legacy and Later Life

Despite facing criticism for his radical departure from classical ideals in his lifetime, Rodin remained dedicated to his vision, leaving behind a body of work that continues to inspire awe and admiration. Rodin's influence extended well beyond his death on November 17, 1917. His approach to sculpture, focusing on realism, individual expression and the tactile qualities of materials, laid the groundwork for modernist movements in the 20th century. At the time of his death, Rodin willed the French state the entirety of his studio to the French state and the rights to make casts from his plasters. Due to this, museums and institutions worldwide, including the Musée Rodin in Paris, established in his honor, continue to celebrate his contributions to the art world.


Auguste Rodin's enduring legacy as the father of modern sculpture is a testament to his innovative approach to form, his profound understanding of the human psyche and his unyielding dedication to artistic expression. Through his mastery of sculpture, Rodin challenged conventions, expanded the boundaries of the medium, and opened new avenues for exploring the complexity of human emotion and the beauty of the natural world. His works, characterized by their emotional intensity and physical dynamism, remain essential milestones in the history of art, celebrated for their ability to speak to the universal aspects of human experience.