1- The Early Works

Born in Paris in 1840, Rodin trained as a sculptor at the “Petite École” (École Impériale Spéciale de Dessin et de Mathématiques, which later became the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs). He failed the entrance examination to the École des Beaux-Arts and so commenced his artistic career in the 1860s as an employee in various studios.

His earliest surviving works are paintings or portrait busts of his family and close friends: his models thus included his father, his companion Rose Beuret and, in 1863, Father Pierre-Julien Eymard, who founded a religious community which Rodin contemplated joining at one point. In 1871, he moved to Brussels to continue working for his employer, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse.

He spent six years in Belgium. During the walks he took in his free time, he tried his hand at landscape painting. He modelled numerous decorative busts while he was there, e.g. The Orphan from Alsace, and also produced his first major works: Man with the Broken Nose (marble, Paris Salon of 1875; the mask shown here is a later version) and above all The Age of Bronze.

The Age of Bronze - © Musée Rodin - Picture : Christian Baraja

Rodin first exhibited this life-size figure in Brussels, then in Paris, after moving back to the capital in 1877. Several critics admired the quality of his modelling, but others insinuated that the artist had used a life cast. Deeply insulted, Rodin defended himself strenuously and his plaster was eventually purchased by the French state in 1880.

Saint John the Baptist, modelled at the very end of the 1870s, marked a decisive stage in Rodin’s artistic development. The saint’s half-open mouth, dishevelled hair and nudity, revealing his muscled body, create a striking image of the fervent preacher wandering in the desert. Rodin returned to Paris in 1877 in the hope of commanding respect in the art world. Disappointed by the suspicious reaction to The Age of Bronze, he started working for Carrier-Belleuse again.

Ixelles Idyll - © Musée Rodin - Picture : Christian Baraja

Based on a design by his employer, he modelled the male figures adorning the pedestal of The Titans Jardiniere, inspired by Michelangelo’s works that he had seen in Italy in 1876. As artistic director of the Manufacture de Sèvres, France’s national porcelain factory, Carrier-Belleuse also employed Rodin there. The sculptor ingeniously experimented with the techniques of decorating porcelain. He further explored the decorative style that he had used for many of his Belgian pieces. A group of terracotta works provides an eloquent example of the traditional techniques that he had learned and would continue to use throughout his career.

He made multiple casts of the two figures in these assemblages – a seated Venus with a small Cupid – and then combined them in different manners to form variants. Ixelles Idyll, a more ambitious later work, recalls the same aesthetic approach, inspired by 18th-century figurines. Seeking to earn repute as an independent artist, in 1879 Rodin tried his luck in two public competitions. The first was for the design of a monument commemorating the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Rodin submitted a fiery, highly unconventional maquette, which was not retained. In the second competition, for a statue representing the Republic, the outcome for Rodin was no happier: his very ornate and expressive bust was eliminated by a jury intent on creating the symbols of the new regime.