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February 27, 2004

Michelangelo and Rodin


I came across a little book the other day entitled “Rodin and Michelangelo” at a going out of business sale at a Crown Books. (Apparently, as I found out later, this particular Crown Books outlet has been ‘going out of business’ for several years now.) Appropriately, it was the catalogue of an exhibition back in 1996-1997 staged by the Casa Buonnaroti of Florence and the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. Given their respective investments in their artists, both institutions had a fairly obvious motive for cooperating: i.e., to cross-market themselves to fans of the other artist. The Casa Buonnaroti would of course want to stress Michelangelo’s continuing importance to Modern Art, while the Rodin Museum would like to position Rodin as the heir of the Divine Michelangelo. This little piece of artistic cross-marketing made me consider how common such salesmanship is in art history, and how it often obscures the real relationships between artists.

Of course, the cross-marketing of Michelangelo and Rodin hardly began with this exhibition/book. As early as 1884, Octave Mirbeau proclaimed it in the pages of Le Gaulois:

I tell you, Monsieur, this man is Michelangelo, and you do not recognize it.

Well, I’ll grant you that in 1884 Rodin was producing work strongly influenced by Michelangelo, but that development was only a few years old at the time.

Back in 1876 Rodin—born in 1840—was working in Brussels as a flunky for the fashionable commercial sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. Carrier-Belleuse, a very talented guy who could sculpt in any style but typically worked in a pseudo-Rococo idiom, had assembled a studio the Belgian capital in order to decorate the new Brussels stock exchange. Rodin had worked there for six years without his common law wife Rose Beuret or his son, both of whom stayed behind in Paris, presumably for financial reasons. To make Rodin’s own obvious lack of success more galling, Carrier-Belleuse was dismissive of the younger man’s artistic dreams. The wildly ambitious Rodin, who had been met chiefly with rejection by the art world—he had been turned down for admission to the Ecole des Beaux Arts not once, but three times and seen his first significant work, “The Man With the Broken Nose” rejected by the Salons of both 1864 and 1865—must have been desperately looking for a crowbar to pry open the gates of fame and fortune. He found what he was looking for in an uptick of French artistic interest in Michelangelo. According to Flavio Fergonzi,

[There were several] events in the French artistic milieu to which Rodin could not have remained indifferent. The first of these events…was the emergence of the so-called sculptural Florentinism fashionable among French sculptors in the 1870s…[C]ritics began to notice, beginning with the [post-Franco-Prussion war] Salon of 1872, a sober and rigorous neo-Renaissance style that complemented the seriousness of the new values of the Republic…[T]he second event…had to do with the quadricentennial of Michelangelo’s birth and the reactions to it in French culture. Beginning in January of 1875, the artistic scene in Paris was enlivened by a new periodical entitled L’Art, a lavish, large-format journal…From the first issue of L’Art, Michelangelo was the tutelary deity, so to speak, and his Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome was illustrated as the frontispiece…Interest in the Michelangelo commemoration dominated the…issues [of the publication throughout the year].

This media attention wasn’t restricted to a single publication, either. In the January 1876 issue of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts the sculptor Eugene Guillaume, who just happened to be the director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, wrote a long essay on Michelangelo’s sculpture. Well, Rodin didn’t need to have the roof fall in on his head: sensing a market opportunity, the struggling artist packed his bags and headed for Italy.

Frontispiece of the Journal L'Art, 1875

Although the official celebrations were over by the time Rodin arrived in February, their effects were still plainly visible. These effects were highlighted, of course, by the press of a newly unified Italy, which was searching for national heroes to celebrate. Christopher Riopelle notes:

It was an extraordinary moment to confront Michelangelo in the city of his birth. The previous year had marked the four hundredth anniversary of that birth, and Florence was the scene of months-long international celebrations…An imposing new monument to Michelangelo, which included bronze copies of his David and other works, now looked down over the city from the newly named Piazzale Michelangelo at San Miniato. The same year, the artist’s family home, the Casa Buonarroti, had opened to the public as a museum where visitors could come to know the titanic genius on a more intimate scale. Critics, connoisseurs, and commentators from across Italy and Europe flocked to Florece to experience and extol the “divine” Michelangelo…In the newly unified Italian nation, newspapers and journals reported extensively on the events, acclaiming the artist as a representative figure of Italian civilization.”

Rodin, on his return from Italy, got cracking on several heroic male nudes. He finished his abandoned effort “The Age of Bronze” and got it accepted by the Paris Salon of 1877 and followed it up three years later with a nude “St. John the Baptist Preaching” in 1880. Rodin supported himself during this period by continuing to work for Carrier-Belleuse, who had relocated to France to head up the famous Sèvres porcelain factory.

It should be noted, however, that even at this point Rodin’s ‘Michelangelism’ was mediated through the work of other sculptors. In the “Age of Bronze” and in “St. John the Baptist Preaching” the Michelangelesque influence competes with a naturalism that derives more from Donatello; while Rodin’s “The Titans” seems filtered through the work of the famous Romantic sculptor of the previous generation, J. - B. Carpeaux.

A. Rodin, Age of Bronze, 1875-6; D. Donatello, David, 1425-30
A. Rodin, Titans, 1877; J-B. Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons, 1860

Finally, in 1880, at the age of 40, Rodin’s new ‘look’ really paid off: he received the state commission for “The Gates of Hell” and was on his way, ultimately to become the most famous artist in the world at his death in 1917. Aware of the value of positioning himself as Michelangelo returned to earth, Rodin for the rest of his life was quite insistent on the extent to which he was a student of Michelangelo. As Christopher Riopelle notes:

“My liberation from academicism was via Michelangelo,” [Rodin] stated in a letter to Antoine Bourdelle, written late in life. “He is the bridge by which I passed from one circle to another.”

The question, of course, is whether the circles Rodin speaks of are artistic or, er, more financial in nature.

Does the work itself suggest that Rodin’s ‘diligent student who eventually equals his master’ narrative holds up? I would have to answer ‘no’ while admitting that a connection of sorts does exists.

On the formal level—which is almost always a truth-teller, if a subtle one—the two artists had little in common. The first—and enormous—gulf between them was that Michelangelo produced his final sculptures almost exclusively as a carver in stone, whereas Rodin was always a modeler in clay whose sculptures were cast in metal (and sometimes 'copied over' into stone). This might seem like a minor technical difference, but it affected the entire concept of sculpture practiced by the two men. In carving there is always—unless the approach is completely misused—a tension between what material remains and what material is removed, between the image and the block of material it was carved from, between positive and negative space. In modeling a sculpture that will be cast in metal, none of this spatial significance necessarily remains—modeled sculpture is effectively a free-standing three dimensional image, and anything goes that the strength of the metal will permit.

Carving is also immensely time-consuming and as a result virtually precludes the notion of knocking off copies of successful pieces. Modeling, on the other hand (combined with various mechanical aids to enlargement and reduction, the labor of which is easily performed by studio assistants), offers no particular barrier to copying, often on a different scale. As a consequence Rodin’s figures—particularly those from the complicated ensemble piece “The Gates of Hell” that Rodin never quite finished—show up ‘xeroxed’ into many different sizes and combinations—a result utterly foreign to Michelangelo’s one-of-a-kind stonecarving aesthetic.

However, these formal differences, although not to be underestimated, can be attributed (at least in part) to the great differences in sculptural traditions between the eras in which the two men worked. As a result, my real interest as I looked at the book and thought about both men, was in their “content,” in what was being communicated by their work. Were they really ‘soul-brothers’?

Michelangelo’s work—ignoring for the purposes of this posting Mike’s life-long series of works on the theme of mother and child because they simply doesn’t have much relevance to Rodin—is unified by its consistent Christian Neo-Platonism. That is, the powerful bodies of his sculptural subjects are presented as metaphors of the Soul struggling toward, or having approached, Higher Reality (i.e., the Godhead). The degree of spiritual enlightenment of his figures corresponds very closely to the extent that they are sunk in an inward and suffering state (low enlightenment), are contemplative (medium enlightenment) or are actively awake and engaged (high enlightenment). Some pictures below illustrate this Neo-Platonic continuum.

The Gaze of Enlightenment Low -> Medium ->High Michelangelo: Dying Captive, 1513; Lorenzo de'Medici, 1531-4; Moses, 1513

Of course, Michelangelo wasn’t a Humanist scholar or a philosopher, he was an artist, and he embraced Neoplatonic thought because it offered him a way of uniting his love of the nude in action with his equally strong Christian belief. The extent to which his vision was faithful to Christian values is almost comically clear when comparing two youthful statues: one of the pagan deity, Bacchus, who is clearly drunk and stupified, and one of God’s anointed, David, whose clear vision is so intense it could drill holes in solid objects.

Pagan Confusion -> Judeo-Christian Clarity Michelangelo, Bacchus, 1496; David, 1501-4

Three hundred and fifty years later, in a very different, post-Darwinian world, Rodin’s figures are clearly not informed with the same Christian belief. (As a young man, Rodin had tried to become a Catholic priest in reponse to the early death of his sister, but it became quickly evident that he lacked a true vocation for anything but art.) Rodin's figures strike me as images of people who would like to believe in God, but find him absent; who struggle to make any kind of sense out of their pain and anguish.

A. Rodin: Eve, 1881; Monumental Head of Pierre de Wiessant, 1884-5; Age of Bronze, 1875-6

In Rodin's hands, Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic sensuality becomes, well, sex—presented as a desacralized activity:

A. Rodin: Danae, ?; The Metamorphoses of Ovid, c. 1886

As Maria Mimita Lamberti notes, this difference did not escape Rodin’s more perceptive contemporaries:

In a biting contemporary opinion written earlier than 1890, the painter Gustave Moreau condemned in Rodin the incestuous coexistence of “the dream of Michelangelo through the spirit and mind of Gustave Dore…And always, always a sadism... ”

Some Rodin's figures are sunk in despair and pain, others are quite wide-awake, but it doesn’t seem that it is God but rather a sort of existential void that they stare into.

A. Rodin, The Burghers of Calais: Jean de Fiennes and Jean d'Aire, 1884-95

Perhaps the real value Rodin found in Michelangelo’s sculpture was the strong contrast with his world-view it offered. By utilizing the ‘heroic’ nude in the late 19th century, Rodin could make it clear that what he was illustrating was not Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonic conception of the Soul (whose potential grandeur was suggested by the magnificence of the body that enclosed it) but rather a non-heroic, desacralized, merely human body adrift in a post-Darwinian world. The ‘Thinker’ derives from the pose of Michelangelo’s Lorenzo de’Medici sculpture, but it is no accident that many people have taken ‘The Thinker’ to be a portrait of a cave-man struggling to articulate his first abstract concept in a primitive, natural world.

A. Rodin, The Thinker, 1880;Michelangelo, Lorenzo de'Medici, 1531-4

Again, this ‘reduction’ from Michelangelo's Christian Platonic world-view was clear to observant contemporaries, such as Rodin’s pupil Constantin Brancusi, who, as Maria Mimita Lamberti notes:

…frankly admitted in 1925 the importance of Rodin in reducing to human proportions the grand rhetoric of Michelangelo… “[W]e have a Rodin to thank for steering clear of the grandiloquent and the colossal and for bringing [sculpture] back down to human scale” [emphasis added]

So there is a connection between the two men. That connection isn't the one that the exhibit (and Rodin himself) tried to push--that is, Michelangelo is not the master and Rodin his centuries-later apprentice. The connection lies rather in how one artist realized that by using the subject matter of another, he could effectively express a diametrically opposite world-view.

As Picasso remarked, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." Perhaps the same could be said about art history.



posted by Friedrich at February 27, 2004


Wow. Cool. I never realized the "The Thinker" and the "Lorenzo d'Medici" parallel. I must say, Signor d'Medici looks rather more imposing than the "Thinker" when put side by side. He looks rather more imposing than anyone, actually.

No wonder the Medicis wanted Mike to sculpt them. Who would have made them look better?

Posted by: annette on February 27, 2004 2:59 PM

In a nutshell:
Michelangelo's figures suffer;
Rodin's are tortured.

Posted by: ricpic on February 27, 2004 3:23 PM

Actually, Michelangelo apparently took some heat over the fact that Lorenzo didn't really look like the statue. It may be just a story, but I've heard Mike replied: "Five hundred years from now, who'll know the difference?"

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 27, 2004 4:33 PM

Fab posting. I've never seen the Michaelangelo/Rodin-influence story so well spelled out. Interesting too to see the attributes of their art related to their feelings about God. Maybe for his next movie, Mel Gibson will do the Rodin story, or maybe a new version of "The Agony and the Ecstasy." More agony, more ecstasy.

I suspect you disagree with me here, but your posting has me remembering a posting a did a while back about Indian sculpture. Well, really a posting where I lifted some passages from a book about Indian art. You've got Michelangelo's subjects straining towards something; you've got Rodin's kind of fleshy in a collapsed, de-sacralized state ... I'd maintain that what Hindu art shows is the dimension (or realm, or whatever) that they're straining towards or despairing about -- the Other Side, the Divine, Fulfillment-land, whatever. Which gives it a completely different feeling than Western sculpture -- serene, composed, timeless, symbolic. Western art so often seems to be either straining at the bit or feeling bad about not getting anywhere. I kind of like the fact that Indian art (or at least the little bit of Hindu art I'm aware of) doesn't have that quality of strain. But then I handle work deadlines badly too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 27, 2004 5:52 PM


I don't disagree with you at all. Different religious beliefs -> different art. And the independent variable here is unquestionably religious belief.

N.B. I don't mean organized religion when I say 'religious beliefs.' After all, both Rodin and Michelangelo were officially Roman Catholics. But they obviously had radically different beliefs.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 27, 2004 7:12 PM

everyone does their part
for art,
to achieve in the end
the gift to transcend
we are brothers.......
all others.

The great delights of our lives is that in present we get to observe the ways in which our ancestral peers viewed and eschewed the same gristle.
....... from bone to bone
Great Sculptors...... Bernini, Carpeau, Rodin and Micheaqlangelo.... brothers.

so you in present time can define the sublime.
we the artists, merely chafe and flay and smile someday.....
For we are already in love and understanding of what came before without such intellectual Darwinism as you would portend.

In Peace and Love,
and delight in your dialog,
Martine Vaugel

Posted by: Martine Vaugel on February 29, 2004 8:36 AM

Hey, check out Martine's site -- click on her name in her comment. Hot stuff! She's won some Rodin prizes, plus she's been head of sculpture at the wonderful New York Academy of Art.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 29, 2004 9:20 AM

Ms. Vaugel:

I like your sculpture, but I'm a little unclear on your suggestion that all of the sculptors you list above are 'brothers.' Do you describe them that way because they were all involved with the human figure and obviously knew their anatomy? Or are you suggesting that their goals and artistic statements were identical? Personally, I don't think the latter is a tenable position. On a strictly formal level do you consider the distinction between carvers and modelers to be inaccurate (I note your own sculpture seems to be all modeled, and most of it would not even be executable in the context of carved stone. Surely you are aware of Michelangelo's remarks concerning the--to him--significant differences between sculpture that is created by 'adding on' vs. sculpture that is created by 'taking away'?) I very much doubt that Michelangelo would have been all that happy with the work of Bernini, etc., etc. Moreover, what I'm getting at is that the work of these different sculptors obviously, er, 'feels' different, and trying to explain that the difference in feeling very much explains their appeal to different historical epochs.

However, perhaps we simply need to agree to disagree here.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 1, 2004 11:21 AM

This essay is definitely a good reason to revisit the Rodin Museum, but meanwhile I'll write from my existing impressions.

It seemed to me that Rodin was fascinated by aliveness and intensity--it's hard to describe, but there's an energy in all his pieces that's the same, regardless of the appearance or emotion of the subject. In that sense, he didn't care whether he was sculpting people who were focused and active. He didn't mind sculpting them, though--I'm thinking of his sculptures of Balzac. It's possible that he never sculpted anyone who looked as steady-minded as some of Michaelangelo's people, though.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on March 1, 2004 11:46 AM

Dear Frederich:
Sorry it has taken so long to respond.

I am saying that these sculptors, were dealing with the same subject, transcendence, viewed from different perspectives due to the factors of time, philosophies, and materials used to exercise their craft, the objective in all cases is still transcendence. Hence the reference to them being "brothers" for even as we speak artists of today are dealing with the same issues, using the mediums and factors of our times to formulate an equation for transcendence as well. Of course this is only my opinion.

In Rodin's case he, Camille Claudel, the thinkers, writers and artists of the first half of the 20th century were taking us out of the Victorian age, hence their disillusion with religious propensities and open exploration of passion in a physical form.

As an aside, this in my opinion led to Camille's undoing for she had yet to understand in a feminist sense, how to let go of Rodin, the man. She had lost her spiritual guide along with the shackles of Victorianism, and her new found freedom left "love and man" as her center. So when her relationship fell apart, she had no spiritual base to retreat to for healing. She is a patron saint to we females artists who have come after her, for showing through her experience what doesn't work.

I believe it was the job of the last half of the twentieth century artists to bring in a proper balance between the adoration of our bodies and the true spirit of love and transcendence that was lost in all the religious fervor of the past and is still under siege at this moment. I believe it is imperative for our planet that we artists bring together these two very divergent views of life, (according to the fanatics on both sides of the argument). This is obviously not a "modernist view " of art and artists, as I am neither.
I am one of those outsider souls who profess lineage from the giants you write about, my heroes and teachers.

But back to your questions about your definitions in sculpture. Yes, I can agree to disagree ... it's so agreeable that way.
By the way, as an other aside, the "feeling " is all that we have over the machines that claim to be able to create sculpture now. I have never done a portrait that was finished until it "felt like the person." I think we "feelers" and "thinkers" of the world should unite for truth and beauty and let the combat rest in it's proper place, at the feet of the viceroy's who are attempting to control our planet.
In peace and love, I can't keep up much dialog as my studio is warm and compelling. Glad you liked my sculpture.
Martine Vaugel

Posted by: Martine Vaugel on March 5, 2004 11:49 AM

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