The sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) lived and worked in the Hôtel Biron in Paris for the last decade of his life. (The word Hôtel is used here in the old sense, meaning mansion.) In his will, he left the building and most of his sculptures to the French state, for use as a museum.
Much later, in 1909, Rodin made this bust of the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).
When I first saw the sculpture Ugolino and his children, by Auguste Rodin, my impression was that Ugolino was trying desperately to protect his children, perhaps from wolves or bandits. But I didn’t know the story then.
There really was a man named Ugolino della Gherardesca who lived in the thirteenth century, from about 1220 to 1289. He was an Italian count who was very much involved in the feuds and conflicts of his era. On orders of his enemy, the Archbishop, Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were imprisoned in a tower and left there to starve to death, the keys having been thrown into the river.
This probably would have been forgotten as just another gruesome episode from Italian history, except that Dante Alighieri picked up on the story a quarter century later and used it in his Divine Comedy — in the Inferno part, of course. In Dante’s version, the dying children beg their father to eat their bodies after they have died, and he finally gets so desperate that he does so. For this crime of cannibalism (among other crimes) he is condemned to eternal torture in the ninth circle of hell — along with his enemy, the Archbishop.
In the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris, the bronze casting of Ugolino and his children is on an island in the middle of a round pond, with other Rodin sculptures around the edges and the Dome of Les Invalides rising up in the background.
Auguste Rodin originally made the sculpture Ugolino and his children as part of The Gates of Hell, but then he also decided to have it cast as a free-standing sculpture.
Le penseur (The Thinker) is one of Auguste Rodin’s best known sculptures. Multiple castings of it were made during his lifetime. I used to see it every day when I was a student in New York, because there is a full-size casting of it in front of the Law Library at Columbia University.
The Kiss is another well-known sculpture by Rodin that was cast repeatedly during his lifetime. The casting in my photo is on display outside the Orangerie, which is 2 km north of the Rodin Museum (a quarter of an hour by bicycle) on the other side of the river. This is a somewhat messy place to display a sculpture, with lots of distractions from the Place de la Concorde in the background. Note that the lady’s right knee is black, no doubt from being rubbed by countless passers-by.
Speaking of messy places to display a sculpture, another such place is Boulevard Raspail at Place Pablo Picasso (formerly Place Vavin), where another Rodin sculpture is on display in the stripe between the two directions of traffic, across from the café La Rotonde.
The person portrayed here is the French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), whose novel Le Père Goriot I recently read because it was recommended by the French economist Thomas Piketty in Le capital au XXIe siècle.
Rodin’s Balzac has always been a controversial sculpture, and just from seeing it here on the Boulevard Raspail I never quite knew what to think of it, since the face is up so high that I have trouble making out the details. Also I have never been sure whether Balzac in this sculpture is wearing sunglasses or not, or if perhaps some prankster climbed up and put sunglasses on him. Rodin, in any case, insisted that his intention was not to make a realistic portrait of Balzac, but to capture his essence, and this I think he has done.
Camille Claudel at the Rodin Museum
In October 2013 the Rodin Museum presented an exhibition of twenty-two sculptures of Camille Claudel (1864-1943), including some that had not been on display for several years during the ongoing renovation of the museum.
The exposition’s introductory brochure said that Camille Claudel “has become an almost too familiar figure today: her stormy love affair with Rodin and her long, tragic internment in a mental asylum have often eclipsed her bold, experimental art and her distinguished career.”
Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the exhibition, but some of her works can be seen on the museum’s website — and of course there is one on the exhibition posters and brochure, Les Causeuses (The Gossips), which she created in 1897 using onyx and bronze.
Even after the closing of the special exhibition, the Rodin Museum still has a number of sculptures by Camille Claudel that are on permanent display. In addition, there is a new Camille Claudel museum in Nogent-sur-Seine, 93 km southeast of Paris, which opened in 2017.
At the museum bookshop I bought this book about the life and work of Camille Claudel, who was a very talented sculptress in her own right and a tragic figure because her family committed her to an insane asylum for the last thirty years of her life.
In 1988 a notable French film was made about Camille Claudel. It was directed by Bruno Nuytten, co-produced by Isabelle Adjani, and it starred her and Gérard Depardieu. The film was based on a book by Reine-Marie Paris, who also co-authored this more recent book that I bought at the museum. Reine-Marie Paris is the granddaughter of Camille’s brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, so that would make her the great-niece of Camille Claudel.
I once saw an opera staging that was inspired by Camille Claudel’s fate. It was a production from the year 2000 by the American stage director Chris Alexander at the State Opera in Hannover, Germany, of Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). In this staging, Lucia did not die at the end, but was secretly committed to an insane asylum by her family. An actress played Lucia as an old woman. She was on the stage throughout the opera, re-living her memories of her traumatic experiences when she was younger. The program booklet included three pages of excerpts from letters that Camille Claudel wrote from the asylum, saying she was unjustly imprisoned and begging for her freedom.
My photos on this post are from 2012, 2013 and 2017. I revised the text in 2017.