Rodin Works: the Age of Bronze (The Conquered One, The Vanquished)
In 1875, when the major decoration projects in Brussels were nearing completion, Rodin started the work on a life-size male nude after studies of a 22 years old Belgian soldier named Auguste Neyt. He titled it 'The Vanquished' and intended to submit it to the Salon. After more than 20 years of apprenticeship and anonymity, he hoped to overcome his status as a mere handworker and establish himself as a statuaire. Albert Elsen draws attention to the conservatism of Rodin's aspirations: whereas the word 'sculpture' is associated with the free-handed creations of Modernism, 'statues' were life-size standing figures, created with the intention to have them purchased and displayed by the state. But exactly this denomiation was denied to Rodin's first attempt: "The work of M. Rodin is a study, rather than a statue...", wrote the art critic Tardieu in the magazine Art, in 1877.
Rodin worked on the nude for 18 months. The progress of the work was interrupted by a trip to Italy in February and March 1876 where Rodin admired the work of Michelangelo in a burst of enthusiasm. When he returned to Brussels, he finished the sculpture and presented it at the Cercle Artistique.
Evidently, the pose was inspired by Michelangelo's 'Dying Slave' (1514-16, marble, 90" high). Like Michelangelo's work, Rodin's composition shows a console shape with bent knees and a hollow chest, transmitting a certain expression of unsureness, not to say effeminacy. This impression of temptativeness was augmented by Rodin's decision to have the spear removed from the character's left hand when his work was exhibited in Brussels in January 1877. Originally, the model had been keeping a wooden staff in order to keep his pose for an extended period of time. But Rodin felt that this attribute interfered with the proper view of his modelling, so that 'The Vanquished' was displayed with his left arm suspended in the air. This not only added to the suggestion of indecisiveness, but also deprived the sculpture of its proposed subject matter of warfare.
"We do not need to examine here whether this plaster was modelled directly on the living model. We simply wish to point out that the physical and moral dejection of this figure is rendered so expressively that without any indication other than the work itself, it seems as if the artist wanted to represent a man on the point of committing suicide."
The persistent artist submitted his work to the 1877 Paris Salon, again without the lance, this time under the title 'The Age of Bronze', only to learn the rumours from Belgium had followed him. In Spring 1877, an utterly frustrated Rodin wrote to Rose:
"As you can imagine, I am extremely upset being so near to my goal! My figure was considered to be so fine by everyone, and now they insist on saying it was modelled from life [...] . I am demoralized, I am exhausted, I am short of money, I must look for a studio [...]."
Rodin addressed the chairman of the jury, Eugène Guillaume, director of the École des Beaux-Arts, for a chance to clear his reputation:
"Owing to these terrible doubts raised by the jury, I find myself robbed of the fruits of my labors. Contrary to what people think I did not cast my figure from the model but spent a year and a half on it; during that time my model came to the studio almost constantly. Moreover I have spent my savings working on my figure, which I had hoped would be as much of a success in Paris as it was in Belgium since the modeling seems good - it is only the procedure that has been attacked. How painful it is to find that my figure can be of no help to my future; how painful to see it rejected on account of a slanderous suspicion!"
His Belgian friends Félix Bouré and
Gustave Biot contributed testimonies that they had watched Rodin work on
his figure only from the living model. The artist also had photos made of
Auguste Neyt and his sculpture, to demonstrate that the accusations raised
in the Étoile Belge were false, but his evidence was completely
ignored by the jury.
As these pictures show, Rodin made the legs and lower torso of his figure slimmer than the features of the
model; he also made the head somewhat smaller.
"Nevertheless,", I [=Paul
Gsell] answered with some malice, "it is not nature exactly as it is that
you evoke in your work." (...)
Paul Gsell, Rodin on Art and Artistst, Dover Publications, New York, p. 11
As long as he was haunted by the rumour of surmoulage, the road was not cleared for Rodin's career as an artist sculptor. On 11 January 1880, Rodin had an interview with Turquet, State Undersecretary for Fine Arts, who wanted to commission a bronze cast of 'The Age of Bronze', but needed an expertise contradicting the accusations raised in Belgium. A commission headed by deputy inspector Roger Ballu, however, did not believe Rodin had been able to model the work without surmoulage:
"This examination had convinced us that if this statue is not a life cast in the absolute sense of the word, casting from life early plays so prponderant a part in it that it cannot really be regarded as a work of art.."
Together with Turquet's protégé, Maurice Haquette, Rodin prepared a testimony, dated 23 February 1880, signed by the best-known sculptors of that time, confirming Rodin's outstanding abilities. After this intervention, 'St. John the Baptist Preaching' and 'The Age of Bronze' are shown in the Salon; the latter won a third-class medal and was finally purchased by the state. In August 1880, it won a gold medal in Ghent.
'The Age of Bronze' by now is a very widespread Rodin work. It was realized in large, medium and small versions. The first bronze cast was made by Thiébaut Frères. Allegedly, over 150 bronze casts have been produced by the Rudier Foundry later. The Fine art Museum of Budapest owns a rare pappmaché version, which was authorised by Rodin.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (supplied by The
National Gallery of Art, Washington):
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