PRINT February 1972

Drawing and the True Rodin

Recognition of the excellence of Rodin’s drawing has suffered due to the attention given his sculpture and because of the abundance of forgeries that outnumber authentic drawings in this country. To begin to counter both of these conditions an exhibition, “Rodin Drawings, True and False,” conceived by this writer and selected by J. Kirk T. Varnedoe, has been shown at the National Gallery of Art and opens on March 9th at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Our book, Rodin Drawings, published by Praeger, accompanies the exhibition; in it Mr. Varnedoe presents the drawings for the first time in a chronological order and also distinguishes the hands of many of the fakers. The public attending the exhibition has the opportunity to study almost 100 authentic Rodin drawings and prints, before seeing a section on the fakers, and finally has the chance to test itself on 30 unidentified drawings. To our knowledge this is the first exhibition of this type to be shown in the United States. It also represents the scholarly and critical debut of Kirk Varnedoe, Stanford University doctoral candidate, and David E. Finley, Fellow of the National Gallery of Art. My own essay which follows represents thoughts on Rodin’s authentic drawings since the completion of the chapter for our book.

SCULPTURE GAVE RODIN A SURFACE; drawing gave him an edge. The simple sustaining premises of his sculpture and drawing were that art imitates life; life was mirrored in surfaces; therefore, sculpture was an art of surfaces. Art imitated gestures, gestures reduced to edges, and therefore drawing was an art of edges. Modeling and drawing meant that he had to work from what was palpable in the model, its flesh and silhouettes. As life came to be his subject, being an artist was for Rodin labor unarrested by any sense of mastery or attendance upon inspiration. To produce an edge was moral and knowledge: it demarcated the sincere and the insincere, the true and the false, the known and the unknown. A well-made contour was life, a wall against a sea of uncertainty, the shoreline of a continent. But Rodin was more than a cartographer. The edge could signify the feelings of artist and subject. Drawing was the expression of thought as he sought to understand life and make it understood. What stayed his line from frigidity was the reflection of the artist’s heart on the object he created.

Rodin’s drawings tell us more important things about him as an artist than all of the sloppily finished posthumous bronze casts, enlargements, and reductions made by his skilled assistants, the unlimited commercial editions of bronzes and plasters he contracted for, the unfinished or rejected marbles (now filthy for the most part) so flagrantly, numerously, and ignorantly displayed in the Musée Rodin without warning to the public. Drawings were Rodin working for Rodin, not for a sculpture editor, a Victorian client, or the state, which never adequately supported his gift to the nation after the artist’s death. What irony that there should be even a few fake drawings in the collection of the Musée Rodin, sometimes hung in the galleries and sometimes added to the ample reserves by well-meaning but undiscriminating directors.

The drawings that Rodin made as a student and until the 1870s are undistinguished but interesting evidence of his conservative background. He had been educated to the 19th-century idea that individuality came through long study of selected past styles which could then be synthesized in order to permit him to improve upon nature and continue certain “timeless” ideals of beauty and good taste. It was a system closed to serious or even minor innovation. Until the end of the century, for example, drawing in charcoal and stomping a silhouette were academically frowned upon. Rodin’s great teacher, Lecoq de Boisbaudran, told his students that “the pencil is the intelligent, spiritual, energetic instrument par excellence.”1 Stomping was proscribed until the ’90s because it was too facile and diminished the development of finesse and tact. From his academic background Rodin learned important lessons about what he would and would not do. Drawing allowed him to be an artist at all times and to spend a lifetime in fruitful encounters with art and nature. Sketching animal skeletons as a youth under Barye’s tutelage confirmed that drawing was the “bones” of art, but not the blueprint for his sculpture. Constant work, correction, and discipline were transformed from dogma to instinct. But he also learned by his 30s that one could master styles, not life. The international language of art absorbed through his eye and memorized in his hands was not his native tongue. Polished linear phrases could dry up the artist’s heart. Ingres taught him the rules. Michelangelo showed him how to break them.

The “Blacks”

Not until the 1870s, when’ Rodin was approaching middle age, did he find the incentive and means to personalize drawing. His maturation as a man caught up with his artistic precociousness. Exposure to the work of Michelangelo was perhaps the single most important incentive to rethink his art. It was Michelangelo who was largely responsible for Rodin making his drawings free to fantasy in the 1870s and 1880s, and paradoxically it was a subsequent reappraisal of Michelangelo in the late 1890s which helped him to move outside of himself for the sources of his art.

Rodin’s passionate imaginative drawings that precede and coexist with the emergence of The Gates of Hell show us Michelangelo’s influence in countering the rules of Ingres. Rarified silhouettes, delicacy of feeling, and decorous poses gave way to vehement graphic synopses and discoordinated choreography. Meaning and method conjoined. Mood and manner were black. The dialectic of sexual attraction and repulsion between men and women was obsessively dramatized, and the unreason for their joining was met with an illogic of illumination and shadowing. Single figures, as well as couples, became disjunctive, knotlike, centrifugal or centripetal in motion, as if about to fly apart or break by their own self-compression. (Rodin commented on how Michelangelo’s tragic figures seemed about to break themselves.) Michelangelesque were the absence of daylight between limbs and torsos and multiple points of contact between embattled bodies. Rodin’s contribution was the evolution of nondescriptive but mood-evocative devices such as the spotting of his blacks that flooded across contours and created surprising patterns of form. His mastery of métier returned to the medium all to which it was susceptible.

With his “blacks,” Rodin broke new ground in body language. There was no restraint imposed by vertical emphasis and inherited stable art postures so vital to academic instruction. Rodin saw Michelangelo as his model of a dramatist of the body. The latter’s “unnatural” but dramatically convincing expressive gestures encouraged Rodin to unmask the body, concealed in art by propriety and taste, so that it would more freely react to conflicting impulses and desires experienced in dream or waking fantasies.

Rodin was not an illustrator, and his “blacks” began as studies of anonymous figures in extreme, emotional situations. Later he would pen or pencil titles as they were suggested by the drawings or which seemed appropriate to Dante or mythology. The absence of identifying settings, attributes, or symbols in the “blacks” constitutes what scholars of baroque art call the motif in “isolation,” and was used by artists since Rembrandt’s time to indicate the universality of a theme. Rodin’s isolated motifs included his preoccupation with man struggling with his animal nature and took the form of centaurs seen alone, abducting a woman, or embracing a faun, and finally this sexual duality emerges in sculpture as the anguished Centauress. The repeated brilliant drawings of the parent—such as Medea, Ugolino, and Icarus—involved with the violent destruction of its offspring, may have had special and personal meaning for Rodin as a father. (Rodin figuratively destroyed his son Auguste who failed to live up to his father’s hopes for him as an artist.) The almost totally silhouetted horseman drawing from the Chicago Art Institute invites speculation that this is either a self-portrait, mirroring Rodin’s longing for some form of escape, or is the bearer of Rodin’s admiration for Michelangelo, who led him out of the limbo of his past.

Continuous Drawing

Prolific as he was, and there are more than 7000 drawings in the Musée Rodin, Rodin seems to have gone long periods without making figure sketches. (He made hundreds of architectural studies.) In the early 1880s he resolved to make sculpture from life, from direct observation of the unprofessional model, and hence there was no need for drawing to prepare him for such projects as The Burghers of Calais. As late as 1888 and the selection by Rodin of drawings to accompany Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, his graphic work still showed fantastic themes of aggression and irreverence. It is only in the late 1890s, after a period of many years for which few drawings seem to exist, that evidence points to a renewal of energy and interest in drawing. During the last years of work on the monument to Balzac, his most visionary sculpture, Rodin seems to have resolved that drawing should share the same basis in life as his sculpture. He rejected drawing from imagination in favor of a new and unprecedented fidelity to vision. To achieve this, and as he had earlier done in sculpture, Rodin quite simply had to transform the conditions of drawing.

Why did Rodin give up drawing from imagination and just at the moment in 1897 when there appeared a publication of a brilliant collection of his “blacks” that most of the public saw for the first time? Later evidence may be provided by such statements made around 1912, Mien the artist said, “Without a strong base for the rational guidance of his work, without points of comparison with nature to his fantasy, free to his imagination, to his feelings, which are always ready to lead him astray, the artist has that impressionability which makes him pass so promptly from faith to discouragement. It is only in life that one searches for life. Life alone is worthy of the name of beauty, and it is not to be seen in the dream, the imagination of illusion.”2 Certainly by 1897, he had become committed to “sincere observation,” which years later he would describe as “disdaining theatrical poses [and] interesting itself in the simple and much more touching attitudes of real life.”3 In 1900, Rodin confided to Bourdelle that earlier he had artificially imposed movement on his figures and that he could find the drama of Michelangelo’s art in nature itself, so that his problem was to naturalize Michelangelo. The concurrent publication of the “blacks” with that of his new drawings paralleled his siting The Kiss across from the Balzac in the Spring salon of 1898 to demonstrate how far he had come as an artist.

The condition of drawing inherited by Rodin which he transformed was not just that of the artist’s reliance upon imagination enriched by a cultivated memory, but memory itself. In Rodin’s time, as well as in that of Giacometti, when the artist drew from a live model, memory functioned severally. As he looked away from the subject and to his paper, the artist had to hold some detail or passage in mind. Academically trained artists had to remember to improve upon nature and how to impose on the figure past styles, a corrected aplomb, and other notions of perfection and beauty. Problems of technique could further break concentration on the subject.

Rodin’s invention, his new premise for drawing, was that the artist could work without breaking visual contact with the model. He could draw continuously rather than in interrupted fashion. To bring his art into greater conformity with nature, Rodin evolved a natural way to draw. As a youthful student of Lecoq de Boisbaudran, he and others had been encouraged to draw in the air with a finger the silhouette of a figure perceived moving at a distance in order to “observe the great lines of the mass,” and thereby achieve “a simplified whole.”4 This was an aide-mémoire, one means of developing “picturesque” memory. It remained for Rodin to hit upon the idea of actually executing a drawing without observing its evolution. His superbly educated hand had to be retrained to become the reflex of the eye and feeling. What separated Rodin from his conservative contemporaries was that he was able to transform his art before nature.

While not relying upon memory, correct proportion was often sacrificed, but Rodin won truth through the contours by imagining that the point of his pencil was actually probing the body’s edge. These drawings were made with great speed and in response to models in unstable positions. He found that inadvertent distortions often enhanced the impression of movement. This undeliberated mode gave his drawing not only more character and authenticity, but more important, a new artistic wholeness. Continuous drawing encouraged “daring impressions which pass over useless details to seize upon the truth of the whole.”5 His amazing drawing of a naked male model balancing on one hand shows that, at a time when Cézanne was seeking a new wholeness of composition which superseded the dictates of the motif and denied self-sufficiency of parts in the painting, Rodin was finding a new unity for the motif in drawing and sculpture.

Rodin’s edges produced by continuous drawing betray pressure in a distinguishing double sense. First, they evoke the pressure of the body as Rodin saw it: a healthy fullness that tensed its periphery, a blazing vitality that refracted his own. Secondly, there was the pressure of his hand in drawing as Rodin sought to possess the body through his drawing instrument. Passion had passed from theme to execution. Continuous drawing allowed Rodin to forget technical matters and to absorb himself completely in the “subtle secrets of the human body,” to become one with his subject in a new way. Similarly, for the viewer, Rodin did not want detachment, such as would be expressed by esthetic admiration for an isolated drawing passage, but rather communion with the totality so that one could test the rightness of a pose through one’s own body. Perception became empathy.

The poignancy of real life gestures that swayed Rodin from visionary drawing also revealed to him still another body language. Criticized by Matisse in 1908 for being an artist who thought of his art in terms of details and not the whole, Rodin in fact devoted the majority of his late drawings to the study of the entire human form seen in an unprejudiced way. The suffusion of life through the entire body held greater fascination for Rodin the draftsman than the isolated study of the human face. Flooding into his drawings after 1896 came spontaneous, uninhibited, vernacular movements, those involuntary responses of the body to spirit, feeling, and impulse, that only recently have begun to interest psychologists. Women were often drawn from points of view that were so foreshortened, close, or which revealed intimate parts of the body, that the artist was inspired to comment, “Occasionally I get effects that are quite interesting, positions that are suggestive and stimulating; but that is by the way. My object is to test to what extent my hands already feel what my eyes see.”6 Sculptures of cancan dancers in the 1890s, such as Rodin’s Flying Figure and Iris, Messenger of the Gods (sometimes referred to as The Eternal Tunnel) were shocking in the exposure of genitalia and were defended by the artist against the charge of obscenity on the grounds of his sincerity of observation. These sculptural partial figures, as well as the late small figurines of dancers and bathers, must be viewed not as an esthetic of the hand, but as with the drawings, the result of a discovery of a new completeness of form. Drawings and figurines are denied definition within the contours, for Rodin sought only the essentials of volume and mass seen in movement. A thin wash over the body within its contours, the barely tempered clay surfaces, gave Rodin freedom from explanatory detail and a statement whose breadth took him from a 19th- to a 20th-century view of art.

The Reticence of Abundance

After 1900, Rodin enjoyed not only his continuous drawing, but a more deliberate mode which returned to rectification of errant edges. For these drawings, not surprisingly, the model was more passive, and there is a decided delicacy of feeling and line, augmented now by a beautiful, fragile, silvery quality that results from hatching and liberal stomping both for purposes of erasure and modeling. The imposition of a strong edge amidst lighter tentatives gave the whole a greater incisiveness and expressed the artist’s intuition of where feeling displayed by the model was to be accentuated. Rectification also took the form of cutting out figures and either setting them aside in folders or remounting them on new sheets of paper. Unlike Matisse’s cutouts, in which he “carved” figures out of color, Rodin first drew the figure in pencil, then covered it with a wash, and then edited its edges with a scissors. As with his innumerable plaster casts dispersed around his studios, these cutout figures served as a repertory for future compositions and possibly tracings as Rodin was loathe to let a good but perfectible idea remain dormant.

While appearing less venturesome than those made without watching the pencil, the late edited drawings reflect Rodin’s awareness of his own abundance as an artist which had evolved over 50 years in response to the challenges of art and nature. The disease of much 19th-century drawing, like that of sculpture, Rodin diagnosed as resulting from an excess of culture and absence of feeling. It had strayed too far and too long from nature, which for Rodin had to be the starting point for all styles and originality. The late silvery images allowed Rodin to draw upon his cultivated memory and educated hand, as well as upon observation, while still holding something in reserve, sparing the pencil when the idea was there.

Without his sculpture, Rodin’s drawings would prove to any serious student of his art his greatness and humanity. While reassuring Rodin’s stature as an artist and his humane disposition, what else do these drawings tell us about the true Rodin as an artist? Early they show the diligent would-be academician, but give practically no hint of his private life. Then they reveal the passionate obsessions of imagination and dream, the closest he came to a confessional art. Finally, in old age, he became a brilliant reporter and compassionate interpreter. For reasons and evidence given elsewhere, Rodin, was a long time visionary, hardly an Impressionist, sometimes a realist, occasionally a symbolist, and never a stylist. He was capable of sensuous tenderness, but there are late drawings that show the hostile, aggressive side of his nature towards women.

If one could have asked Rodin who he was, he would have rejected (as he did) the suggestion that he was a genius, an inspired innovator or revolutionary. What he claimed for himself can be easily checked with his drawing. Once he defined an artist as one who took pleasure in what he did. On another occasion he talked about the artist as a “useful man.” “I call useful, all that gives happiness,” by which Rodin meant “the revelation of the meaning of life.”7 In 1910, Rodin lamented that “art is dead” and was the least concern of his epoch.8 He viewed himself as the conscience of his society, one who made art “a matter of spirit, thought and dreams.” Above all, Rodin saw himself as a “worker.” This was no false modesty, but reflected his memory, of failing entrance into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and, hence, being without education in theory. He thus saw himself as a member of the mechanical arts and enjoyed likening himself to medieval artists who made no distinction between the fine and useful arts. He believed in learning one’s craft through the apprentice system and slow maturation resulting from unremitting work. Visionary, reporter, interpreter, useful man, conscience of his time, and worker, begin to fill out the picture of the true Rodin as an artist and remind us of Rilke’s apt comment, “Rodin, you understand, is the name for a host of things.” In all things this artist was a man possessed by the demon of the best.

Albert Elsen



1. Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, L’Education de la Mémoire Pittoresque et la Formation de l’Artiste, Paris, n.d., p. 118.

2. H.C.E. Dujardin-Beaumetz, “Rodin’s Reflections on Art,” in Albert Eisen, Auguste Rodin, Readings on His Life and Work, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1965, p. 158.

3. Paul Gsell, Rodin on Art, trans. Mrs. Romilly Fedden. Introduction by Richard Howard, New York, 1971, p. 95.

4. Lecoq de Boisbaudran, L’Education, p. 54.

5. Gsell, Rodin on Art, p. 95. Elsewhere Rodin said, “In sketching, the movements of the personages are rendered more lifelike by the mere indication of the general rhythm . . . imprecision adds to the action.” (Dujardin-Beaumetz, “Rodin’s Reflections,” p. 163.)

6. Anthony Ludovici, Personal Reminiscences of Auguste Rodin, Philadelphia, 1926, p. 139.

7. This and the preceding quote are from Gsell, pp. 233 and 236.

8. “Ours is an epoch of engineers and of manufacturers, not one of artists. The search in modern life is for utility; the endeavor is to improve existence materially. Every day science invents new processes for the feeding, clothing, or transportation of man; she manufactures cheaply inferior products in order to give adulterated luxuries to the greatest number . . . it is no longer a question of spirit, of thought, of dreams. Art is dead.” This was said by Rodin to Paul Gsell probably around 1910.