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.
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 lean, muscled body, create a striking image of the fervent preacher wandering in the desert.