How Rodin Captured Human Desire in Clay and Bronze

When Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss was first displayed in the United States, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, it was deemed unsuitable for public display. Anyone who wanted to view the piece had to submit an individual application.

Though it’s hard to imagine today, the bronze sculpture depicting the adulterous 13th-century Italian lovers Paolo and Francesca in an amorous embrace was so visceral and evocative that it was once deemed to be as controversial as a work like Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the British artist’s 1998 Turner Prize-nominated installation, in which she displayed her unmade bed strewn with dirty tissues, sanitary pads, and condoms.

Rodin began The Kiss around 1883 as part of The Gates of Hell, a huge commission begun in 1880. Although the project was never completed, it would become Rodin’s most important work. The original concept was to illustrate the first of the three cantica forming Dante’s Divine Comedy, the 14th-century epic poem that Rodin adored and read again and again. At the time of the artist’s death in 1917, The Gates of Hell contained 180 individual sculptures, including many of his most famous works: The Thinker, the magnificently sensual Torse d’Adèle, and Eternal Spring.

For Rodin, The Gates became a sort of laboratory of the human condition in which he captured the physical manifestations of different states and emotions with his expressive modelling of clay and bronze work. But how, exactly, did he manage to create such heightened and absorbing representations of human experience?

Constant Simon, an early mentor and little-known artist, taught Rodin to focus on achieving the contour line in his work from every angle, and it is this charged line that gives his work such an expressive quality. Rodin described his close observation of living human form to painter Étienne Dujardin-Beaumetz in 1913: “I place the model in such a way that [he or she] stands out against the background so that light falls on this profile. I execute it and move both my turntable and that of the model so that I can see another profile. Then I turn them again and gradually work my way around the figure.”

Rodin worked on a small scale, using clay to render his live models, later casting the pieces in plaster and—with the help of skilled assistants—resizing them to be cast in bronze or carved in marble as editions. In this respect, he was very different from Michelangelo, an artist Rodin admired enormously and who worked reductively from a large piece of marble. Rodin, who came from humble beginnings, did not have the opportunity to learn to carve marble.

Rather, his method was additional and fluid: He worked the clay intuitively from eye. According to playwright Bernard Shaw, the artist nonchalantly spat mouthfuls of water at his work as it formed in his hands to stop it drying out, reconstructing or removing sections as he changed his mind.

Working in his studio at the Hotel Biron (which now houses the Musée Rodin in Paris), Rodin would ask his models, who were often dancers, to twist their bodies to achieve certain sinuous or complex poses. (Anna Halprin, the renowned postmodernist dancer who has long admired the physicality and emotional drama of Rodin’s work, explored the artist’s poses in her recent choreographed film Journey in Sensuality—Anna Halprin and Rodin.)

Trailer for Anna Halprin, Journey in Sensuality - Anna Halprin & Rodin. Courtesy of Zas Films.

Rodin’s close attention to his subjects produced a body of work that art historian Catherine Lampert considered to include the first great representations of female sexuality. In works such as the writhing female nude of Torse d’Adèle, viewers can engage with the figure’s emotional and physical state without any elitist veil of classical or art-historical knowledge separating the spectator and the work. The work’s meaning is immediately accessible. This was the most revolutionary aspect of the artist’s work: Rodin broke with the academic establishment.

It was this passion, and the boundless availability of sensual experience in his work, that apparently unsettled the good people of Chicago. No embrace could be more tender and desirous than that of the tragic lovers Paolo and Francesca in Rodin’s The Kiss.


—Sarah Hyde