The Very Embodiment of a Tribute to Genius


Rodin—The Thinker. Photo by Edward Steichen, 1902

 

In his autobiography, Edward Steichen describes the studio as being so crowded with marble blocks and works in clay, plaster, and bronze that he could not fit them together with the sculptor into a single negative. He therefore made two exposures, one of Auguste Rodin and the Monument to Victor Hugo, and another of The Thinker. Steichen first printed each image separately and, having mastered the difficulties of combining the two negatives, joined them later into a single picture, printing the negative showing Rodin in reverse.

 

Rodin’s Monument to Victor Hugo, photo by Edward Steichen

 

Rodin–The Thinker is a remarkable demonstration of Steichen’s control of the gum bichromate process and the painterly effects it encouraged. It is also the most ambitious effort of any Pictorialist to emulate art in the grand tradition. The photograph portrays the sculptor in symbiotic relation to his work. Suppressing the texture of the marble and bronze and thus emphasizing the presence of the sculptures as living entities, Steichen was able to assimilate the artist into the heroic world of his creations. Posed in relief against his work, Rodin seems to contemplate in The Thinker his own alter ego, while the luminous figure of Victor Hugo suggests poetic inspiration as the source of his creativity. Recalling his response to a reproduction of Rodin’s Balzac in a Milwaukee newspaper, Steichen noted: “It was not just a statue of a man; it was the very embodiment of a tribute to genius.” Filled with enthusiasm and youthful self-confidence, Steichen wanted in this photograph to pay similar tribute to Rodin’s genius.

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