Hôtel Biron

Auguste Rodin photographed on the steps of the Hôtel Biron, Paris

First opened to the public on 4 August 1919, the Musée Rodin was housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras. Now known as the Hôtel Biron, it was built in the Rue de Varenne, Paris, between 1727 and 1732.


Elevation of the façade of Mrs. De Moras’s mansion on the garden side


 L’Hôtel Biron, côté jardin, Charles Berthelomier, circa 1910


The estate was put up for sale and while awaiting a buyer, tenants were allowed to occupy the Hôtel Biron from 1905. Among them were several artists, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963),  Henri Matisse, the dancer Isadora Duncan and the sculptress Clara Westhoff (1878-1954), future wife of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1921), who first told Auguste Rodin about the estate. In 1908, the sculptor thus rented four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios. The garden that had run wild probably made a strong impression on Rodin, encouraging him to place some of his works and part of his collection of antiques amidst its greenery. From 1911 onwards, he occupied the entire building.

Listed as a historical monument in 1926, the Hôtel Biron and its grounds have since undergone major renovation and restoration schemes, to better assert their role as a museum.


Even When We Don’t Reach It

L’Homme qui marche (The Walking Man), Auguste Rodin, 1907

Having eliminated all anecdotal details to focus on the sensation of movement, Rodin produced an unprecedented and powerfully expressive interpretation of it, reiterating the force that had so captivated him when standing before incomplete antique statues and Michelangelo’s unfinished works.



“Schon ist mein Blick am Hügel, dem besonnten,

dem Wege, den ich kaum begann, voran.

So fasst uns das, was wir nicht fassen konnten,

voller Erscheinung, aus der Ferne an—

und wandelt uns, auch wenn wirs nicht erreichen,

in jenes, das wir, kaum es ahnend, sind;

ein Zeichen weht, erwidernd unserm Zeichen . . .

Wir aber spüren nur den Gegenwind.”

Rainer Maria Rilke







“Already my gaze is upon the hill, the sunny one,

at the end of the path which I’ve only just begun.

So we are grasped, by that which we could not grasp,

at such great distance, so fully manifest—

and it changes us, even when we do not reach it,

into something that, hardly sensing it, we already are;

a sign appears, echoing our own sign . . .

But what we sense is the wind against us.”

Translation by Robert Bly

As Playthings of an Unknown Will

Les Saltimbanques (The Acrobats), Pablo Picasso, 1905

The Fifth Elegy is largely inspired by this Pablo Picasso‘s Rose Period painting, in which Picasso depicts six figures pictured “in the middle of a desert landscape and it is impossible to say whether they are arriving or departing, beginning or ending their performance.” Rilke depicted the six artists about to begin their performance, and that they were used as a symbol of “human activity … always travelling and with no fixed abode, they are even a shade more fleeting than the rest of us, whose fleetingness was lamented.” Further, Rilke in the poem described these figures as standing on a “threadbare carpet” to suggest “the ultimate loneliness and isolation of Man in this incomprehensible world, practicing their profession from childhood to death as playthings of an unknown will … before their ‘pure too-little’ had passed into ’empty too-much.'”



For Frau Hertha Koenig


Who are these rambling acrobats,

less secure than even we;

twisted since childhood

(for benefit of whom?)

by an unappeasable will?

A will which wrings, bends,

swings, twists and catapults,

catching them when they fall

through slick and polished air

to a threadbare carpet worn

ever thinner by their leaping:

lost carpet of the great beyond,

stuck like a bandage to an earth

bruised by suburban skies.


their bodies trace a vague

capital “C” for Creation…

captured by an inevitable grip

which bends even the mightiest,

as King Augustus the Strong

folded a pewter plate for laughs.

Around this center

the Rose of Looking

blossoms and sheds.

Around this pounding pestle,

this self pollinating pistle

producing petals of ennui,

blooms of customary apathy

speciously shine with

superfluous smiles.

There: the wrinkled, dried up Samson,

becomes, in old age, a drummer-

too small for the skin which looks

as though it once held two of him.

The other must be dead and buried

while this half fares alone,

deaf and somewhat addled

within the widowed skin.

There: the young man who seems

the very offspring of a union

between a stiff neck and a nun,

braced and buckled,

full of strength and

innocent simplicity.

O, you, children,

delivered to the infant Pain

as a toy to amuse it,

during some extended

illness of its childhood.

You, boy, discover

a hundred times a day

what green apples know,

dropping off a tree created

through mutual interactions

(coursing through spring,

summer and, swift as water,

fall, all in a flash)

to bounce, thud, upon the grave.

Sometimes, in fleeting glances

toward your seldom tender mother,

affection almost surfaces,

only to submerge as suddenly

beneath your face…a shy,

half-tried expression…

and then the man claps,

commanding you to leap again

and before any pain can

straddle your galloping heart,

your stinging soles outrace it,

chasing a brief pair of

actual tears to your eyes,

still blindly smiling.

O angel, pluck that

small flower of healing!

Craft a vessel to contain it!

Set it amongst joys not

yet vouchsafed us.

Upon that fair herbal jar,

in flowing, fancy letters,

inscribe: “Subrisio Saltat.”

…Smile of Acrobat…

And you, little sweetheart,

silently overslept by

the most exciting joys-

perhaps your skirthems

are happy in your stead,

or maybe the green metallic silk,

stretched tight by budding breasts,

feels itself sufficiently indulged.


displaying, for all to see,

the fruit which tips the

swaying scales of balance,

suspended from the shoulders.

Where…O where is that place,

held in my heart, before they’d

all achieved such expertise,

were apt still to tumble asunder

like poorly fitted animals mating…

where the barbell still seems heavy,

where the discus wobbles and topples

from a badly twirled baton?

Then: Presto! in this

exasperating nowhere:

the unspeakable space appears where

purity of insufficiency transforms

into overly efficient emptiness.

Where the monumental bill of charges,

in final arbitration, totals zero.

Plazas, O plazas of Paris,

endless showcase, where

Madame Death the Milliner

twists and twines the

ribbons of restlessness,

designing ever new frills,

bows, rustles and brocades,

dyed in truthless colors,

to deck the trashy

winter hats of fate.

Angel! Were there an unknown place

where, upon an uncanny carpet, lovers

could disport themselves in ways

here inconceivable-daring ariel maneuvers

of the heart, scaling high plateaus of passion,

ladders leaning one against the other,

planted trembling upon the void…

Were there such a place, would their

performance prove convincing to an audience

of the innumerable and silent dead?

Would not these dead toss down their

final, hoarded, secret coins of joy,

legal tender of eternity, before the

couple smiling on that detumescent carpet,

fully satisfied?

Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Robert Hunter

Under So Many Lids

Rainer Maria Rilke


A myth developed surrounding  Rainer Maria Rilke‘s death and roses. It was said: “To honour a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died


Grave of Rainer Maria Rilke at the Churchyard in Raron, Swizerland


Rilke chose both his own gravesite and epitaph. He is buried where one can see both German-speaking villages and land where the main language is French. Late in his life Rilke began writing in French, so this burial site at the edge of his German-speaking world suits his writing well. So does the blend of vastness and intimacy that so nearly reflects the quality of Rilke’s own poetic voice.

Rilke’s epitaph speaks on so many levels that the best translation I can offer is an excavation of its layers, admittedly a bit like trying to explain away a superbly nuanced joke. His epitaph is also an extraordinary feat of verbal condensation. The German word for poetry suggests that a poet’s task is to condense (‘Dichtung’ derives from the root ‘dicht’ meaning dense). Rilke’s epitaph does just that. It reads:

“Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel

(“Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being no-one’s sleep under so many

Rilke here compares rose petals to eyelids, and remarks that unlike eyelids, the petals conceal no desire for sleep. But the word for eyelids (Lidern) happens to sound exactly like the German word for songs (Liedern), so this pun in sound also lets him say that beneath his many songs there is no desire to be anyone’s sleep.

the epitaph refrains from saying that the rose (or the poet) desires no sleep for itself alone. Instead it says it does not want to be anyone’s sleep. So Rilke’s desire may be for a general awakening, not just his own.

The Roses as Sentimental Despair


The Rose VI and The Rose V, Cy Twombly, 2008



“Infinitely at ease
despite so many risks,
with no variation
of her usual routine,
the blooming rose is the omen
of her immeasurable endurance.

Do we know how she survives?
No doubt one of her days
is all the earth and all
of our infinity.”

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated from French by A. Poulin Jr.


The Rose series recall Cy Twombly‘s earlier cycle of paintings, Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair (1985), which also referred to quotations by Rilke, as well as Rumi and Giacomo Leopardi, embracing conceptions of nature dominated by its inevitable demise. Twombly’s ardent, bold, and often flamboyant use of colour has other affinities — with Andy Warhol‘s Flower series, for example, or Henri Matisse‘s late paper cut-outs. But just as the rose recurs throughout Rilke’s work as a memento mori, so does Twombly employ the motifs and conditions of the natural world to allude to the pleasure and transience of life.