Rodin, Ups & Downs
I was born in 1840 on rue de l’Arbalète, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. I had four brothers and sisters, but by the age of 22 I was the only surviving child. I was deeply affected by the death of my elder sister, Maria. My parents were simple people; my father passed on his values to me and supported me in my choices. He told me, “If you want to be an artist, be the best.” It was thanks to him that I produced my first artwork.
I was a mediocre student. I was short-sighted, I had trouble with spelling and grammar. I was the silent type, unwilling to speak in class. Pencils and clay were my natural means of expression.
I failed the entrance exam for the École des Beaux-Arts three times, so I couldn’t apply for the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship with all its opportunities for artists. I was penniless, with everything to prove. But my years as a craftsman were a blessing in disguise, and stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.
I worked hard as an assistant in the studio of Carrier-Belleuse. In 1870, I followed him to Belgium where I stayed for seven years, living a simple life and painting in the Sonian Forest. My partner, Rose, came to join me. Those were the best years of my life!
My reputation was tarnished when I was accused of casting a work straight from a model— and even of using a corpse! Luckily, I had good friends who supported me. The controversy lasted three long years and I had to defend myself, but the scandal paved the way for success.
In 1866, Rose and I had a son, Auguste. I took little care of him, finding fatherhood incompatible with my life as an artist. At my request, however, he came to live with me in the last years of my life, and I made sure he wanted for nothing.
It was a great day when the library in the third arrondissement allowed books to be taken home! I obtained a borrower’s card, becoming the library’s 414th member. This was how I discovered Homer, Lamartine and Rousseau, then Dante, Mallarmé and Baudelaire. I even illustrated “Les Fleurs du Mal”.
I preferred simple dishes such as omelets, stews and apple tarts. I enjoyed a good red wine with my meals. Monet and I had the same wine merchant! In my opinion, the greatest wisdom lay in drinking, eating, sleeping and loving.
My friend Mirbeau was my most loyal defender. A literary man and an ardent non-conformist, he was the first to understand how I was revolutionizing sculpture.
We almost fell out over our exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1889, but our lifelong friendship weathered all storms. Claude Monet helped me understand light, clouds, the sea, cathedrals…
Picture: © Fondation Claude Monet, Giverny
We shared the same aesthetic sensibility. His obsessions regarding painting were the same as mine regarding sculpture: the play of light and shadow; evanescent, ghostly figures…
My top assistant, my right-hand man. He could understand me at a glance. He could patinate bronze better than anyone, it was a joy to see him heating the metal to obtain the desired result. He was interested in everything, and even experimented with photography.