The late Fredric V. Grunfeld has left a substantial legacy with this deeply engaging life of Auguste Rodin. More than ten years in the making, Grunfeld’s biography rectifies many errors in previous biographies of Rodin and supplies much new information based on a study of more than fifteen hundred sources. It has been more than fifty years since the last biography of Rodin was published. The increasing sophistication of modern biography, especially its use of psychological studies, is evident in Grunfeld’s definitive work.
Although Grunfeld documents the many human lives that became intertwined with Rodin’s, his biography still gives the impression of a singular and often-isolated genius. There was really no precedent for Rodin’s sculpture, and while he was often hailed as an innovator in his lifetime, he was just as often condemned as a failure. Although Rodin suffered the insults of critics and sometimes admitted that the vilification of his work depressed him, he had enormous confidence in his work and let nothing stand in his way. In later life, he sorrowfully admitted his deep respect for his teacher and predecessor, Antoine-Louis Barye, also a solitary genius whose realistic sculptures of animals had Rodin’s profound respect. In retrospect, Rodin realized that he had absorbed much from Barye’s example but could have learned much more if he had not been put off by Barye’s laconic and aloof manner.
Grunfeld expertly shows that what Rodin admired in Barye he accomplished for himself. Rodin’s sculptures writhe with energy and passion. They are almost a direct translation from Rodin’s hands, which deeply kneaded the clay and sometimes the flesh of his models into startlingly erotic forms of his passion for life. Rodin never sought simply to copy his subjects; rather, his sculpture had to have a style and life of its own. Rodin’s personality and his subject’s personality had to fuse.
Beginning with Rose Beuret, Rodin found a number of female models who became the mistresses of both his life and his art. Attracted to the shapes of women’s bodies, Rodin made his passions an organic part of his work. Although he had almost nothing in common with Beuret, he kept her as his lifelong companion. As Grunfeld implies, Rodin was not above using women for his art; still, he was also a man of great humanity who realized that women like Rose Beuret had to be respected in their own right. Other women, such as Camille Claudel, were Rodin’s artistic peers. Rodin encouraged Claudel’s talent and made her his assistant and mistress, but he never doubted her originality. The formidable imposition of his imagination, however, unsettled her, and eventually her brother had her committed to a mental institution.
Similarly, the English artist Gwen John became obsessed with Rodin and distressed at the prospect of sharing him with many other women. In her case, however, she was able to leave him and to pursue an independent career, just as Claire de Choiseul took Rodin in hand and showed him how to market himself and raise the price of his commissions.
Grunfeld excels in many passages describing Rodin at work. The sculptor was a tireless worker who tossed off and destroyed countless versions of his work that were not quite right. Although he often worked on commission and against a deadline, Rodin would ignore the pressures of time and money and refuse to deliver a work until it suited him. One of the most notorious examples of Rodin’s delay in presenting commissioned work is his stupendous sculpture of Balzac. The writers’ association, La Société des gens de lettres, of which Balzac was once president, waited many years past the deadline for the presentation of the sculpture. Nothing would budge the artist—not public condemnations of his slowness or the threat of a lawsuit. Working like a biographer, Rodin had traveled to the sites where Balzac lived, scrutinized portraits, read correspondence, interviewed the writer’s...
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