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Rodin and Monet
Rodin and Monet were bound by a lifelong friendship and reciprocal admiration. While they were true contemporaries, born within two days of one another in November 1840, it is hard to pinpoint when they actually met. They were almost certainly introduced by mutual friends like writers and critics Octave Mirbeau and Gustave Geoffroy, or the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. On his return from Belle-Île in 1886, Monet is known to have started attending dinners held by the “Bons Cosaques”, a group of artists and men of letters gathered together by Octave Mirbeau. Rodin also frequented these literary and artistic dinners that contributed to the intellectual effervescence of the period and challenged Academicism. By the time of the exhibition held at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1889, the four protagonists (Rodin, Monet, Mirbeau and Geffroy) definitely knew and already respected each other. On a visit to the Mirbeau family, near Auray (Brittany), in 1887, Rodin saw the ocean for the first time and is said to have exclaimed: “It’s a Monet!” To Mirbeau’s way of thinking, Rodin and Monet had embarked on the same artistic adventure and were destined to be equally successful. In November 1886, he wrote to Rodin about the paintings that Monet was going to exhibit at Petit’s gallery the following year: “He works hard and, in my opinion, he has done great things: it will be a new facet of his talent; a formidable, awe-inspiring Monet, of whom we were unaware… Our friend Monet is a heroic man of courage, and if anyone deserves to succeed alongside you, it’s him.”
While both artists epitomize a revolutionary turning-point in their respective genres, it is hard to imagine career paths more different than those of Rodin and Monet. Rodin’s rise to fame was a slow struggle: The Age of Bronze and the scandal that finally brought the sculptor recognition dates from 1877. By then, Monet was already an established artist: his dazzling career had actually begun in 1865 with Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), followed, in 1866, by Femmes au jardin (Women in the Garden). In 1874, his Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) gave its name to the Impressionist movement.
In the 1880s, helped by the art dealer Durand-Ruel, Monet sold his work exclusively to private collectors. Rodin, meanwhile, achieved his long-sought official recognition: The Age of Bronze was eventually purchased in 1880 by the French state, which then commissioned The Gates of Hell from the sculptor. Other major commissions soon followed: the Bust of Victor Hugo in 1883; the Monument to the Burghers of Calais in 1885. In 1887, Rodin was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. From then on regarded as an official artist, he sat on the jury of the 1889 Universal Exposition. His growing renown began to spread outside the borders of France: in February 1889, whereas Monet, Seurat, Pissarro and Gauguin appeared as guest artists at the annual exhibition held by the group Les XX in Brussels, Rodin was voted a fully-fledged member.
Monet’s situation formed a stark contrast with Rodin’s success: although the painter produced a stream of masterpieces, he was constantly exposed to financial problems and confronted with the public’s incomprehension and the critics’ scathing attacks.
After Georges Petit opened his Parisian gallery in 1882, Rodin and Monet showed their works in collective exhibitions there on a regular basis. Other galleries did not bear comparison to his luxurious and spacious premises, where Georges Petit frequently mounted international exhibitions. In 1886, when the artists participating in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition announced that it would be their final show together, Monet and Renoir’s works were exhibited in Petit’s gallery alongside Rodin’s sculptures. The three artists were reunited in 1887, for the gallery owner’s sixth international exhibition, surrounded by Raffaelli, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot and Whistler.
The terrain was thus ripe for what, in tandem with the Universal Exposition, would prove to be the main event of summer 1889. Plans had been set in motion the previous year to mount an exhibition of Monet, Rodin, Renoir and Whistler’s works at the Galerie Petit. By February 1889, plans had changed and the exhibition was to feature “only you and me”, Monet wrote to Rodin. A catalogue was to be published, with two prefaces written by Mirbeau (for Monet) and Geffroy (for Rodin). The stakes were high for the painter, whose invitation to the sculptor attested not only to his sincere admiration for Rodin, but also to the prospect of long-awaited public recognition. The exhibition, which was as ambitious as the one Rodin would organize in the Pavillon de l’Alma in 1900, was, in fact, almost a retrospective of Monet’s career, since no less than 145 paintings, dating from 1864 to 1889, were on display. While Monet threw himself body and soul into this project, Rodin adopted a more detached attitude: his work on The Gates of Hell was taking up all his time and energy and he thus wrote to Geoffroy: “I won’t be able to show very much at all, hardly anything; my name will be with Monet, that’s all.” Yet the public discovered 36 of Rodin’s sculptures beside Monet’s paintings.
At the last minute, the exhibition nearly did not take place. On 20 June, the day before the opening, Monet and Petit sent a telegram to Rodin, urging him to come and install the rest of his works that very evening. Rodin did what they asked him, but the following morning, Monet realized that these final pieces, particularly The Burghers of Calais, concealed a whole wall of his paintings. The very same day he wrote to Petit expressing his disappointment: “This morning I came to the gallery where my apprehensions were confirmed by what I saw. My panel at the back, the best in my exhibition, has been absolutely spoilt since Rodin installed his group. The damage is done… it is so distressing for me. If Rodin had understood that exhibiting together involved agreeing upon where works were to be placed, if he had taken me into consideration and attached a little importance to my works, it would have been easy to come to a suitable arrangement without doing ourselves any harm. In short, I left the gallery completely disheartened, resolved to take no interest in my exhibition and not even attend it. I found it hard to control my emotions yesterday on seeing Rodin’s strange behaviour. The only thing I wish for is to return to Giverny and find some peace of mind…”
Edmond de Goncourt writes of Rodin’s alleged violent reaction to Monet’s dissatisfaction: “Terrible scenes apparently occurred, when a Rodin unknown to his friends leapt out of the gentle-natured Rodin and exclaimed, ‘I don’t give a damn about Monet, I don’t give a damn about anyone, I only care about myself!’.”
Despite these pre-show tensions, soon smoothed over, the exhibition was a huge success with both the public and critics. In Mirbeau’s eyes, Monet and Rodin were the “definitive” and “most glorious” exponents of painting and sculpture.
Although hurt by Rodin’s attitude in the run-up to their joint exhibition, Monet’s admiration for the sculptor never wavered. Moreover, the two men continued to see each other from time to time, even after Monet moved to Giverny, where he purchased an estate in 1890. Their regular correspondence bears witness to a loyal friendship, which lasted until the sculptor’s death in 1917. They also joined forces to defend a number of common causes, helped each other whenever they could, and shared other friendships.
Thus, in late 1889, when Monet, on the strength of his recent success, launched the appeal fund to keep Manet’s Olympia in France and see it hanging in the Louvre, Rodin was one of the people he asked to contribute to the cause. The sculptor immediately replied, “My dear Monet, put me down for 25 francs. It’s so my name will be on the list. I’m having money problems at the moment and cannot afford more. I congratulate you for having, through your efforts, given the Louvre a painting by Manet. Kind regards, Rodin.”
In 1892, when the painter Jules Breton withdrew, on account of ill health, from the commission for a large landscape in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, Rodin, who was then on the committee supervising the decoration of the building, suggested that Monet replace him. Unfortunately for Monet, the committee voted for the young academic painter Pierre Lagarde.
Lastly, in 1894, it was through Monet that Rodin first met Cézanne – another major figure of the modern movement – at a gathering in Giverny, in the company of Mirbeau, Clémenceau and Geffroy. The latter relates how the shy Cézanne reacted to being introduced to the famous sculptor: “He’s not proud, Monsieur Rodin; he shook my hand! Such an honoured man!!!”
In 1897, unable to attend the opening of Rodin’s exhibition at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Monet sent him a message. Moved by this mark of friendship, the sculptor posted him a drawing entitled Salome (now lost). The first book of Rodin’s drawings was published the same year with a preface by Mirbeau. On receiving a copy, Monet wrote to Rodin expressing his staunch friendship and admiration. The sculptor replied: “Your letter filled me with joy, for you know that since we are both so preoccupied with our pursuit of nature, demonstrations of friendship may suffer, but the same feeling of brotherhood, the same love of art, has made us friends for ever, and so I was very happy to receive your letter… I still have the same admiration for the artist who helped me understand light, clouds, the sea, the cathedrals that I already loved so much, but whose beauty awakened at dawn by your interpretation moved me so deeply.”
The following year, Monet wrote to Rodin to renew his support. During this period, the sculptor was a target for biting criticism because of his Balzac, the plaster version of which had been shown for the first time at the Paris Salon. Monet added his signature to the list of artists and intellectuals (Signac, Carrière, Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy, Anatole France, Mirbeau, Jules Renard, Courteline, Henry Becque, Jean Moréas, Lugné-Poe, Clémenceau, Bourdelle, Maillol…) on an open letter of protest expressing “the hope that in a country as noble and refined as France, Rodin would not cease to be treated with the consideration and respect to which his great integrity and admirable career entitle him.”
Once again deeply touched by this proof of friendship, Rodin wrote to Monet to thank him, identifying his struggle with the battle fought by the Impressionists some years earlier: “Your esteem gives me such steadfast support; I received a broadside like the one you once did when it was fashionable to laugh at the innovation you had made by putting atmosphere into landscapes.”
In 1900, Monet was among those who contributed to the catalogue of Rodin’s works published at the time of his exhibition in the Pavillon de l’Alma. The short text that he sent from Giverny conveyed both the painter’s modesty and his friendship and admiration for Rodin: “You have asked me to tell you what I think of Rodin in a few lines. You know what I think of him, but to express it well, I would need a talent that I do not possess; writing is not my trade. But what I am anxious to affirm is my great admiration for this unique man of our time; he is great among the greats. The exhibition of his works will be an event. Its success is certain and it will be the definitive consecration of the excellent artist.”
When a public appeal fund was launched in 1904 to offer an enlargement of The Thinker to the City of Paris, which at that time had no public monument by Rodin, Monet made a donation of two hundred francs, a considerable amount of money in those days for an artist with a relatively modest income.
It was also thanks to Monet that an exhibition of Rodin’s drawings was held in 1907 at the gallery of Durand-Ruel, who had represented the painter and defended his works for many years.
Lastly, in 1917, a few months before Rodin died, Monet, thinking ahead to the founding of the museum reserved for his friend’s works, offered to help sort and classify the sculptor’s drawings.
Evidence of the two artists’ friendship can be seen in their respective collections. In 1888, Monet gave Rodin a work entitled Belle-Île, which belonged to a series of 39 canvases painted in the open air during his long stay on the island Belle-Île-en-Mer, and was shown in the sixth international exhibition held in Georges Petit’s gallery. Rodin hung it on the second floor of the Villa des Brillants (Maurice Guillemot “Au Val Meudon”, Le Journal, 17 August 1898; cited p.36, “Monet-Rodin” ex. cat., 1989) and it is now in the museum collections (inv. P.7329).
In exchange, Rodin asked Monet to choose between two works, in all likelihood She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife and a bronze cast of Young Mother in the Grotto (1885, plaster, inv. S.1196; the bronze was bequeathed by Michel Monet to the Musée Marmottan, Paris [Marmottan, inv. MM.5180]). Monet chose the bronze and when it arrived, wrote the sculptor a letter of thanks: “My dear Rodin, let me tell you how happy I am with the beautiful bronze that you have sent me. I have put it in the studio so that I can see it all the time. I came home marvelling at your Gates and everything that I saw in your studio. Thank you again. Regards.”
Dating the other exchanges of works that Monet and Rodin must have made is problematic, since literary sources are sometimes misleading. In his book Claude Monet, sa vie, son œuvre, Geffroy mentions the presence of a Rodin marble, Woman and Child, in the studio-lounge at Giverny, and two bronzes by the sculptor, works that Monet valued most highly. There seems to be some confusion between the bronze (not the marble) of Young Mother in the Grotto and the plaster of the Minotaur that Monet also had in his possession, otherwise known as Faun and Nymph or Taurine Jupiter (Marmottan, M. Monet Bequest, inv. MM.5127).
In Rodin’s collection, there is also a youthful drawing by Monet, probably dating from 1857, just before the artist left Le Havre for Paris. It is similar to the caricatures that he occasionally exhibited alongside Boudin’s paintings and sold quite well. How this drawing came to be in Rodin’s collection, however, remains a mystery.
In 1916, the donation of works that Rodin made to the nation inspired Monet who, in turn, gave his Nymphéas (Water-Lilies) series to the French state in 1920. The paintings were installed in the Orangerie, in the Tuileries gardens, in May 1927, a few months after Monet’s death in 1926.
Several other possibilities had been considered before this site was chosen. The initial project was to build a pavilion, designed by Bonnier, in the eastern corner of the grounds of the Musée Rodin (where The Gates of Hell now stand; at the time, they had not yet been cast in bronze), open to the public since 1919. The scope of the project grew, and there was talk of a much larger and more complex building, to be designed by Girault, which would encircle the Hôtel Biron and incorporate the Musée Rodin into a “National Museum of Contemporary Arts”.
This complex never saw the day, but would later inspire the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. And it is indeed the mutual esteem and friendship of two artists who embody two distinct branches of modernity – Rodin, through his focus on fragments, reproductions and assemblages; Monet, whose painterly investigations paved the way for American abstraction – that played a role, be it a small one, in its foundation.
Monet–Rodin, “Rien que vous et moi”, exhibition catalogue, Musée Rodin, Paris, 2010.
Claude Monet–Auguste Rodin, Centenaire de l’exposition de 1889; Musée Rodin, Paris, 1989.
Gustave Geffroy, Monet. Sa vie, son œuvre, Macula, Paris, 1980 (1922, 1924).