Rodin was born in 1840 into a working-class family in Paris, the second child of Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin, who was a police department clerk. He was largely self-educated, and began to draw at ten. Between ages 14 and 17, Rodin attended the Petite École, a school specializing in art and mathematics, where he studied drawing and painting. His drawing teacher, Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, believed in first developing the personality of his students such that they observed with their own eyes and drew from their recollections. Rodin still expressed appreciation for his teacher much later in life.
Rodin submitted a clay model of a companion to the Grand École in 1857 in an attempt to win entrance; he did not succeed, and two further applications were also denied. Given that entrance requirements at the Grand École were not particularly high, the rejections were considerable setbacks. Rodin's inability to gain entrance may have been due to the judges' Neoclassical tastes, while Rodin had been schooled in light, eighteenth-century sculpture. Leaving the Petite École in 1857, Rodin would earn a living as a craftsman and ornamenter for most of the next two decades, producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments.
Rodin's sister Maria, two years his senior, died of peritonitis in a convent in 1862. Her brother was anguished, and felt guilty because he had introduced Maria to an unfaithful suitor. Turning away from art, Rodin briefly joined a Catholic order. Father Peter Julian Eymard recognized Rodin's talent and, sensing his lack of suitability for the order, encouraged Rodin to continue with his sculpture. He returned to work as a decorator, while taking classes with animal sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye. The teacher's attention to detail—his finely rendered musculature of animals in motion—significantly influenced Rodin.
In 1864, Rodin began to live with a young seamstress named Rose Beuret, with whom he would stay—with ranging commitment—for the rest of his life. The couple bore a son, Auguste-Eugène Beuret. That year, Rodin offered his first sculpture for exhibition, and entered the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful mass producer of objets d'art. Rodin worked as Carrier-Belleuse' chief assistant until 1870, designing roof decorations and staircase and doorway embellishments. With the arrival of the Franco-Prussian War, Rodin was called to serve in the National Guard, but his service was brief due to his near-sightedness. Decorators' work had dwindled because of the war, yet Rodin needed to support his family—poverty was a continual difficulty for Rodin until about the age of 30. Carrier-Belleuse soon asked Rodin to join him in Belgium, where they would work on ornamentation for Brussels' bourse.
Rodin planned to stay in Belgium a few months, but he spent the next six years abroad. It was a pivotal time in Rodin's life. He had acquired skill and experience as a craftsman, but no one had yet seen his art, which sat in his workshop, since Rodin could not afford castings. Though his relationship with Carrier-Belleuse deteriorated, he found other employment in Brussels, displayed some works at salons, and his companion Rose soon joined him there. Having saved enough money to travel, Rodin visited Italy for two months in 1875, where he was drawn to the work of Donatello and Michelangelo. Their work had a profound effect on his artistic direction. Rodin said, "It is Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture." Returning to Belgium, he began work on The Age of Bronze, a life-size male figure whose realism brought Rodin attention but led to accusations of sculptural cheating.
Rose Beuret and Rodin returned to Paris in 1877, moving into a small flat on the Left Bank. Misfortune surrounded Rodin: his mother, who had wanted to see her son marry, was dead, and his father was blind and senile, cared for by Rodin's sister-in-law, Aunt Thérèse. Rodin's eleven-year-old son Auguste, possibly developmentally delayed, was also in the ever-helpful Thérèse's care. Rodin had essentially abandoned his son for six years, and would have a very limited relationship with him throughout his life. Father and son now joined the couple in their flat, with Rose as caretaker. The charges of fakery surrounding The Age of Bronze continued. Rodin increasingly sought more soothing female companionship in Paris, and Rose stayed in the background.
Rodin earned his living collaborating with more established sculptors on public commissions, primarily memorials and neo-baroque architectural pieces in the style of Carpeaux. In competitions for commissions he submitted models of Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Lazare Carnot, all to no avail. On his own time, he worked on studies leading to the creation of his next important work, St. John the Baptist Preaching.
In 1880, Carrier-Belleuse—now art director of the Sèvres national porcelain factory—offered Rodin a part-time position as a designer. The offer was in part a gesture of reconciliation, and Rodin accepted. That part of Rodin which appreciated eighteenth-century tastes was aroused, and he immersed himself in designs for vases and table ornaments that brought the factory renown across Europe. The artistic community appreciated his work in this vein, and Rodin was invited to Paris salons by such friends as writer Léon Cladel. During his early appearances at these social events, Rodin seemed shy; in his later years, as his fame grew, he displayed the loquaciousness and temperament for which he is better known. French statesman Leon Gambetta expressed a desire to meet Rodin, and the sculptor impressed him when they met at a salon. Gambetta spoke of Rodin in turn to several government ministers, likely including Edmund Turquet, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts, whom Rodin eventually met.
Rodin's relationship with Turquet was rewarding: through him, he won the 1880 commission to create a portal for a planned museum of decorative arts. Rodin dedicated much of the next four decades to his elaborate Gates of Hell, an unfinished portal for a museum that was never built. Many of the portal's figures became sculptures in themselves, including Rodin's most famous, The Thinker and The Kiss. With the museum commission came a free studio, granting Rodin a new level of artistic freedom. Soon, he stopped working at the porcelain factory; his income came from private commissions.
Camille Claudel (1864–1943).
In 1883, Rodin agreed to supervise a course for sculptor Alfred Boucher in his absence, where he met the 18-year-old Camille Claudel. The two formed a passionate but stormy relationship and influenced each other artistically. Claudel inspired Rodin as a model for many of his figures, and she was a talented sculptor, assisting him on commissions.
Although busy with The Gates of Hell, Rodin won other commissions. He pursued an opportunity to create an historical monument for the town of Calais. For a monument to French author Honoré de Balzac, Rodin was chosen in 1891. His execution of both sculptures clashed with traditional tastes, and met with varying degrees of disapproval from the organizations that sponsored the commissions. Still, Rodin was gaining support from diverse sources that propelled him toward fame.
In 1889, the Paris Salon invited Rodin to be a judge on its artistic jury. Though Rodin's career was on the rise, Claudel and Beuret were becoming increasingly impatient with Rodin's "double life". Claudel and Rodin shared an atelier at a small old castle, but Rodin refused to relinquish his ties to Beuret, his loyal companion during the lean years, and mother of his son. During one absence, Rodin wrote to Beuret, "I think of how much you must have loved me to put up with my caprices…I remain, in all tenderness, your Rodin." Claudel and Rodin parted in 1898. Claudel suffered a nervous breakdown several years later and was confined to an institution by her family until her death.
By 1900, Rodin's artistic reputation was entrenched. Gaining exposure from a pavilion of his artwork set up near the 1900 World's Fair (Exposition Universelle) in Paris, he received requests to make busts of prominent people internationally, while his assistants at the atelier produced duplicates of his works. His income from portrait commissions alone totalled probably 200,000 francs a year. As Rodin's fame grew, he attracted many followers, including the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and authors Octave Mirbeau, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Oscar Wilde. Rilke stayed with Rodin in 1905 and 1906, and did administrative work for him; he would later write a laudatory monograph on the sculptor. Rodin and Beuret's modest country estate in Meudon, purchased in 1897, was a host to such visitors as King Edward, dancer Isadora Duncan, and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Rodin moved to the city in 1908, renting the main floor of the Hôtel Biron, an eighteenth-century townhouse. He left Beuret in Meudon, and began an affair with the American-born Duchesse de Choiseul. Among Rodin's overseas admirers were the transit magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes and the historian Henry Brooks Adams; Yerkes is reputed to have been the first American to own a Rodin sculpture.
After the turn of the century, Rodin was a regular visitor to Great Britain, where he developed a loyal following by the beginning of the First World War. He first visited England in 1881, where his friend, the artist Alphonse Legros, had introduced him to the poet William Ernest Henley. With his personal connections and enthusiasm for Rodin's art, Henley was most responsible for Rodin's reception in Britain. Through Henley, Rodin met Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Browning, in whom he found further support. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of British artists, students, and high society for his art, Rodin donated a significant selection of his works to the nation in 1914.
Rodin in 1914
After the revitalization of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890, Rodin served as the body's vice-president. In 1903, Rodin was elected president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. He replaced its former president, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, upon Whistler's death. His election to the prestigious position was largely due to the efforts of Albert Ludovici, father of English philosopher Anthony Ludovici.
During his later creative years, Rodin's work turned increasingly toward the female form, and themes of more overt masculinity and femininity. He concentrated on small dance studies, and produced numerous erotic drawings, sketched in a loose way, without taking his pencil from the paper or his eyes from the model. Rodin met American dancer Isadora Duncan in 1900, attempted to seduce her, and the next year sketched studies of her and her students. In July 1906, Rodin was also enchanted by dancers from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, and produced some of his most famous drawings from the experience.
Fifty-three years into their relationship, Rodin married Rose Beuret. The wedding was 29 January 1917, and Beuret died two weeks later, on 16 February. Rodin was ill that year; in January, he suffered weakness from influenza, and on 16 November his physician announced that congestion of the lungs has caused great weakness. The patient's condition is grave." Rodin died the next day, age 77, at his villa in Meudon, Île-de-France, on the outskirts of Paris. A cast of The Thinker was placed next to his tomb in Meudon; it was Rodin's wish that the figure serve as his headstone and epitaph.