Posts Tagged ‘Rodin’

I spent some of my favorite moments during my recent trip to Paris exploring again the Rodin Museum and its wonderful outdoor sculpture garden. There is something really special about seeing sculptures outdoors, where the time of day, the season, and the weather can make them come alive in new ways that are not possible in the controlled confines of an indoor museum.

When I travelled to Washington D.C. on Saturday, one of my goals was to see some of the Rodin sculptures that I recalled were in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. The garden is sunken slightly below ground level and as I descended I immediately spotted the large sculpture known as The Burghers of Calais (Les Bourgeois de Calais). This multi-person sculpture is very well-known and I had seen another casting of it recently in Paris. (According to French law, there can be only 12 original castings of a Rodin sculpture, and both the one that I saw in Paris and this one are original castings.)

I couldn’t remember the story behind the sculpture, so I turned to Wikipedia. From a factual perspective, the sculpture commemorates an event during the Hundred Years’ War, when Calais, a French port on the English Channel, was under siege by the English for about eleven months. As you study the faces and the postures of the men in the sculpture, you realize that it is much more than a monument to a historical event.

According to Wikipedia, “Edward, the king of England, offered to spare the people of the city if six of its leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and the castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first and five other burghers joined with him. Saint Pierre led this envoy of volunteers to the city gates. It was this moment, and the poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death that Rodin captured in his sculpture.”

The sculpture in the second image is known simply as The Walking Man (L’homme qui marche). I am amazed at Rodin’s skill in capturing a sense of movement in such an incomplete figure. For me, it’s like a three-dimensional sketch that has come to life.

The final Rodin sculpture that I wanted to highlight is known as the Crouching Woman (also known as Lust). I find the pose of the woman to be intriguing and the Rodin Museum, which has a terracotta version of the sculpture, asserts that it “looks like a compact block with limbs gathered together and pressed tightly against the torso. This block-like sculpture reflects Rodin’s aesthetic analysis of Michelangelo’s sculpture: it is a work that, to quote the great Italian artist, could roll down a hill without breaking.”

These Rodin sculptures remind me of Paris, but in a greater sense, they highlight my heightened appreciation for the work of artists. Sometimes artists capture beauty and other times they create beauty (and often they do both at the same time). What is beauty? That will have to be the subject of a separate blog someday.


Burghers of Calais

The Walking Man

Crouching Woman

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I was a college student majoring in French literature, which brought me to Paris for an academic year from 1974-1975, we spent quite some time studying the works of René Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Most of us are familiar with the quote “I think, therefore I am,” (“je pense, donc je suis” in French), but I was surprised to learn that a better English translation might well be “I am thinking, therefore I am.” Why? Those who deeply study Descartes’ work believe that Descartes was trying to express the idea that it is in the very act of thinking that he proved his own existence. I admit this is pretty esoteric and geeky, but it is part of my memories of Paris.

Yesterday I visited the Musée Rodin that is housed in a beautiful building, the Hôtel Biron, where noted French sculptor Auguste Rodin worked and lived. The French government bought the building in 1911 and was going to evict Rodin, but he made a deal with the government, pledging to donate his works to the state if it turned the building into a museum and let him remain their for the remaining years of this life. The museum and its surrounding gardens house and amazing collection of Rodin’s works, along with paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, and other artists.

I consider myself to be a thinking man and Rodin’s famous statue, Le Penseur (The Thinker) has always been my favorites. Yes, the statue has been overly commercialized and there are multiple castings of the statue throughout the world. It is difficult to say which one is “the” original, since a smaller version of the stature was designed to be part of Rodin’s large work Gates of Hell. Emplaced outdoors in Rodin’s world, surrounded by countless other works by Rodin, the version of statue at the Musée Rodin feels authentic—it is the one that was donated to the people of Paris in 1906.

One of the coolest thing for me about sculpture, especially when it is outdoors, is that you can examine it from multiple angles and the feel of the statue changes as the light and weather changes. I spent a lot of time with The Thinker yesterday and even spent some time seated on a bench with two others as the three of us silently worked on our sketches of the well-known sculpture. As the final photo shows, my skills have not yet improved, but my confidence has definitely increased. I did not feel ill at ease or self-conscious when sketching.

Two things really struck me about Rodin’s work as I was sketching. The first impression was a sense of wonder and amazement at Rodin’s ability to capture the human physiques. My rudimentary drawing skills kept rendering the body with straight lines— ended up with skinny arms and legs—while Rodin expressed so well the muscular curves of the men he sculpted. Secondly, I concluded that it is near impossible to sketch hands and feet, especially when they are twisted or contorted. There are just two many moving parts in hands and feet, which makes knees and elbows seem easy by comparison.

The Thinker in Paris

The Thinker in Paris

The Thinker in Paris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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There is something about sculptures that often affects me more deeply than other types of art. I love the way that a three dimensional sculpture lets you look at a piece from different angles and see it in different ways. I especially enjoy outdoor sculptures and I spent longs hours at the outdoor garden of the Rodin Museum during a trip to Paris a few years.

As I was wandering along an informal trail at my local marshland park recently, I came upon a piece of bone that a beautiful organic shape. As I held it in my hands, it reminded me of an abstract sculpture. It may be from a deer and is perhaps a vertebra, though I must confess that I don’t know animal anatomy at all and could be completely wrong.

The shapes and the textures of this miniature organic sculpture really fascinate me as I view them from different angles.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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