Rodin Works: Saint John the Baptist Preaching

St. John The Baptist, bronze, Musée d'Orsay; Photo: William Allen  In 1877, Rodin began with first studies on a monumental sculpture of 'St. John the Baptist Preaching'. Responding to the critics who had accused him to have used casts after life for 'The Age of Bronze' he modeled his figure larger than life-size. 

Rodin's interpretation of St. John the Baptist is that of a man preaching while walking. Although both feet are fixed on the ground with the whole sole - like in an Egyptian sculpture - the work procures the dynamic impression of a man that resolutely goes his way. To his friend Paul Gsell, Rodin later explained how he visualised two phases of a stride simultaneously in order to suggest movement:

"Now, the illusion of life is obtained in our art by good modelling and by movement.(..)
"Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another. (...) 
"You have certainly read in Ovid how Daphne was transformed into a bay-tree and Procne into a swallow. (...) In each of them one still sees the woman which will cease to be and the tree or birds which she will become.
"It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages. He represents the transition from one pose to another - he indicates how insensibly the first glides into the second. In his work we still see a part of what was and we discover a part of what is to be. (...)
 "Now, for example, while my Saint John is represented with both feet on the ground, it is probable that an instantaneous photograph from a model making the same movement would show the back feet already raised and carried forward to the other. Or else, on the contrary, the front feet would not yet be on the ground if the back leg occupied in the photography the same positions as in my statue."Now it is exactly for that reason that this model photographed would present the odd appearance of a man suddenly stricken with paralysis and petrified in his pose (..)
"If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem duddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because, all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a seconds, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art. (...)
"It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.

'St. John the Baptist' by Giovanni Francesco Rustici (Baptistery of Florence), 1506-11, Bronze, height: 265 cm (with base) Rodin certainly was familiar with historical examples of statues of St. John, like 'St. John the Baptist' by Giovanni Francesco Rustici (Baptistery of Florence). Although the poses are very similar, Rodin shows his Baptist without the traditional attributes of St. John - the sheepskin-coat and the cross. His striding saint is nude, unidealized and crudely modeled. As could be expected, the work met severe critique; most recipients found it improper, even ugly and shocking. 

De Caso and Sanders describe Rodin’s 'St. John' as follows: 

"The exaggeration of certain anatomical parts, like the bulging muscles of back and arms and the ribs pushing through the chest, anticipate sculptures like The Thinker.  However, a difference in proportions is apparent, for the St. John is slight and bony. The contrast between muscularity and wiry build suggests the ascetic habits of the desert dweller and the strength of his convictions. With his unusual figure type and with the unique method for representing movement, Rodin was able to create a sculpture with a forceful presence unlike anything his contemporaries had ever seen."

Like for 'The Age of Bronze', it was again the personality of the model that inspired Rodin for 'The Baptist'. He once told Dujardin-Beaumetz: Ognatelli as model of the Baptist

"One morning, someone knocked at the studio door. In came an Italian, with one of his compatriots who had already posed for me. He was a peasant from Abruzzi, arrived the night before from his birthplace, and he had come to me to offer himself as a model. Seeing him, I was seized with admiration: that rough, hairy man, expressing in his bearing and physical strength all the violence, but also all the mystical character of his race. I thought immediately of a St. John the Baptist; that is, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a forerunner come to announce one greater than himself."

There has been some controversy if it had been César Pignatelli or rather his countryman Danielli who posed for the work. Georges Grappe claimed that Danielli had been the model at least for the head, hereby contradicting a statement by Truman Bartlett. A photo showing Rodin's model Pugnatelli in the pose of 'The Baptist' seems to prove the latter has posed at least for the body ; as for the head, even Grappe had to admit there is only little resemblance between the 'Bust of Danielli' and the face of 'St John'.

Homme qui marche, bronze, small version, Musée Dr. Faure. Photo: H. de RoosThe sculpture 'The Walking Man' is a version of 'St. John' without head and arms, focused on the illustration of movement. During Rodin's lifetime, 'The Walking Man' was considered to be a preliminary study for the complete 'Baptist', and mentioned in exhibition catalogues as such. Judith Cladel, however, later recalled that Rodin created the 'Walking Man' only after 1900, employing fragments from previous versions, deliberately producing a partial figure.Photo:MuRo, A. Rzepka

Albert Elsen and Henry Moore even suggested 'The Walking Man' was made on purpose to look like an antiquarian sculpture rooted in Roman and Greek art, without referral to the live model. Even if Elsen and Moore were wrong, I determined a striking resemblance to the sculpture 'Headless Hercules',  which was placed in the garden of Rodin's villa in Meudon ('Headless Hercules', Roman copy after a 4th c. BC Greek original marble, 183 x 103 x 55 cm, MuRo Co.1107). Even the different ways the arms have been broken off - leaving a stump at the dexter side, while at the sinister side, the complete shoulder has been truncated - is nearly identical in both cases. Rodin considered this antique torso as the "jewel" of his collection, and once commented:

"This Hercules, so proudly arched, stands there in the most unaffected manner. He has been seized at a moment when nobody is looking at him. Every single muscle is vibrating with the desire to exercise, but no part of his being displays itself for admiration. It is in this way too that antique art stands out so sharply from academic art which claims, illegitimately, to be its descendant."

The headless 'st John' was exhibited for the first time in Rodin's Pavillon at the Place d'Alma on a high column in 1900. In 1905, the sculpture was enlarged to over-life size, the right shoulder being bent slightly forward to amplify the suggestion of movement; only from that time on, it became known as 'The Walking Man'. The enlarged bronze version was exhibited for the first time in Strasbourg in 1907, and in the Paris Salon. One bronze cast was donated by admirers to be placed at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. Rodin, eager to see his sculpture combined with the architecture created by Michelangelo, travelled to Italy in January 1912 together with the Duchesse de Choiseul and inspected the future site. After the installation, the cast only stayed there till 1923 and was then returned to Lyon, France, because it displeased the French Ambassor in Rome. By now, there are several monumental casts in Museums worldwide.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (supplied by The National Gallery of Art, Washington):

Grappe, Georges. Catalogue du Musée Rodin. Paris, 1927: 50. 
Cladel, Judith. Rodin: Sa vie glorieuse, sa vie inconnue. Paris, 1936: 146. 
Grappe, Georges. Catalogue du Musée Rodin. 5th ed. Paris, 1944: 64. 
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 169, as Study for "St. John the Baptist," Gates of Hell. 
Descharnes, Robert, and Jean-François Chabrun. Auguste Rodin. Lausanne, 1967: 85, 241. 
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 149, repro., as Study for "St. John the Baptist," Gates of Hell. 
Tancock, John. The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin. Philadelphia, 1976: 205-209. 
de Caso, Jacques, and Patricia B. Sanders. Rodin's Sculpture: A Critical Study of the Spreckels Collection. San Francisco, 1977: 85-87. 
Elsen, Albert E. "When the Sculptures Were White: Rodin's Work in Plaster." In Rodin Rediscovered. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981: 130. 
Vilain, Jacques. Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin: Centennaire de l'exposition de 1889. Exh. cat. Musée Rodin, Paris, 1989: 189. 
Rosenfeld, Daniel G. Auguste Rodin's Carved Sculpture. Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1993: 413-417. 


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