H. de Roos - Rodin´s Approach to Art

2. Romanticism and academic art

This view of Nature, like all ideologies and philosophical ideas, itself is a historical product, a reaction to the rationalism postulated by Descartes and the philosophy of Enlightenment. 
In the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) the pureness of Nature is opposed to the corruption of man-made Culture. The instinct of the "Noble Savage" should count more than law and social rules; education would spoil the innate moral qualities of the child. In his Moral Letters, Rousseau writes: “For us, existence is feeling: and our capacity to feel inarguably precedes our reason." 

By the beginning of the nineteenth Century, this romantic tendency had found its expression in Art all over Europe, giving room for the subjective, the imaginative, the spontaneous and the visionary. Romantic Art would focus on the emotions and the senses, instead of the intellect; would highlight the exceptional and heroic, the conflict between individual and society and the inner struggle of its protagonists; would idealise the gothic, the medieval, the exotic, the dark and mysterious. And, above all, it would celebrate Nature. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) paints gloomy mountain, forest and sea views, twilight skies hovering over the ruins of a church, the ice-covered wreck of a ship called Esperanza, Hope. The efforts of civilisation appear frail vis-à-vis the elementary powers.

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow - 50k

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow
1817/19; Oil on canvas, 121 x 170 cm.
Formerly Nationalgalerie, Berlin.


Since the 1820´s, the actual balance has shifted. Economic production leaves the confinement of the workshop, becomes bundled in the manufacture, then powered by the steam engine. 
A rational division of labour develops, a proletarian class starts to fill the cities, black smoke wavers from factory chimneys.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, French, 1824-1904
Working in Marble 
(or: The Artist Sculpting Tanagra), 
1890, Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 39.5 cm
Dahesh Museum of Art


Politically, the disruption caused by the French Revolution and Napoleon´s ambitions is smoothed out, the aristocratic families reign again, sharing their power with bourgeois parties. Between the 1848 upheaval and the 1870 Paris Commune, French Art tends to reflect and affirm this social status quo, as if it were timeless, which - at that time - means classical. The Neo-Classicism of the eighteenth Century is set forth, in architecture, painting and sculpture.  Heroes, goddesses, nymphs from ancient mythology, biblical prophets, allegorical virtues populate the paintings. Exhibitions takes place in juried Salons, artistic training is concentrated in prestigious academies - hence the name Academic Art for the style of this époque.

And for every occasion, for every statement, there is a pre-approved pose, a fixed list of attributes. There is harmony, the perfect balance of proportions, the straight lines of the Greek profile. Rodin, on the contrary, depicts his model Bibi with a broken nose and asymmetric traits. 

Instead of professional models, he hires peasants, dancers, acrobats, invites them to move freely in his atelier, to surprise him with their unstudied gestures. 

Nature, for Rodin, is dynamic, allows for disorder, the spontaneous. He demands every sculpture to be filled with inner power; the work’s surface is the visible result of an invisible, underlying force. In his artistic testament, he advises young sculptors: 

Your mind has to understand every surface as the outer limit of a volume pressing against it. Imagine shape as something directed towards you. All life has its origin in a centre, then it blosoms and unfolds outward from within. Exactly this way one can sense a mighty inner impulse in every beautiful sculpture. That is the secret of antique Art.

  Auguste Rodin, "Testament", quoted in Gsell, German edition, Diogenes, Zürich, p. 8, my English translation



Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose, 
Hirshhorn Collection, Washington



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