Paris 1840 - Meudon 1917
Auguste Rodin’s immense success and reputation as a sculptor has tended to somewhat overshadow appreciation of his skills as a draughtsman. Yet throughout his career he laid great emphasis on his drawings, and wanted them to be better known. He hung countless drawings in his studio at the Hôtel Biron, and sold or gave away many sheets as gifts. From the 1880’s onwards, he mounted several exhibitions of his drawings, culminating in the inclusion of hundreds of studies as part of the great retrospective exhibition of his work held on the Place de l’Alma in Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1900. At his death, Rodin left a massive group of some eight thousand drawings, the vast majority of which are today in the collection of the Musée Rodin in Paris. Yet while he drew extensively throughout his career, he left almost no dated drawings, and only rarely can a drawing be related to a specific sculpture. As such it is difficult to accurately date his drawings; all the more so because he often reworked his drawings several times, over a period of several years after he had first made them.
Around 1890 Rodin became very busy with sculptural commissions, notably the Monument to Balzac, which occupied him between 1891 and 1898. It had been thought by some early scholars that, burdened with work, the artist drew very little in the final decade of the 19th century. This has, however, been proved to be incorrect and, if anything, his intense engagement with the process of developing his ideas for the Balzac sculpture stimulated his approach to drawing. Rodin’s manner of drawing began to change in the late 1890’s, becoming somewhat looser and more expressive, with a greater use of watercolour applied in diaphanous washes. He often made drawings from the model without looking at the sheet of paper in front of him; this may have also been the result of his habit of allowing his models to walk freely around his studio, capturing their movements with his pencil in a kind of graphic shorthand.
In 1903, the writer Clément Janin provided a fascinating description of Rodin’s method of drawing at this late stage in his career: ‘In his recent drawings, Rodin uses nothing more than a contour heightened with a wash. Here is how he goes about it. Equipped with a sheet of ordinary paper posed on a board, and with a lead pencil – sometimes a pen – he has his model take an essentially unstable pose, then he draws spiritedly, without taking his eyes off the model. The hand goes where it will: often the pencil falls off the page...The master has not looked at it once. In less than a minute, this snapshot of movement is caught. It contains, naturally, some excessive deformations, unforseen swellings, but, if the relation of proportions is destroyed, on the other hand, each section has its contours and the cursive, schematic indication at its modelling...The first effort completed, Rodin takes up the work again, sometimes corrects it directly with a stroke of red pencil; but most often, it is in tracing that he rectifies it. His great preoccupation at this time is to conserve and even to amplify the impression of life that he has obtained from the direct sketch...The tone that he adds, this wash of Sienna that goes over the limits of the line, seems capricious or negligent, and has, in reality, the effect of thickening this enlargement, as well as binding together the contours.’
Many of these late drawings were shown in public for the first time, albeit uncatalogued, at the exhibition of his sculptures mounted by Rodin in a private pavilion on the Place de l’Alma in Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Other drawings of this type were shown elsewhere in Europe in the early years of the century. When some of Rodin’s late watercolours of nudes were exhibited in Rome in 1902, the young Swiss artist Paul Klee was profoundly struck by them. As Klee wrote in his diary, ‘Rodin – with caricatures of nudes – caricatures! – a species previously unknown in his case. And he’s the best I’ve ever seen at it, astonishingly brilliant. Contours drawn with a few scant strokes of the pencil, flesh tones added with a full brush in watercolor, and sometimes drapery suggested with another color, greenish, say. That’s all, and the effect is simply monumental.’