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Auguste Rodin originally made the sculpture Ugolino and his children as part of The Gates of Hell, but then he also decided to have it cast as a free-standing sculpture.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 (originally entitled “Francesca da Rimini“) 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.
My photos on this post are from 2012, 2013 and 2017. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Camille Claudel at the Rodin Museum.
The Rodin Museum is at 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris.