Monument to Balzac

Photograph by Edward Steichen, 1911

 

Monument to Balzac is a sculpture by Auguste Rodin in memory of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac. According to Rodin, the sculpture aims to portray the writer’s persona rather than a physical likeness. The work was commissioned in 1891 by the Société des Gens de Lettres, a full-size plaster model was displayed in 1898 at a Salon in Champ de Mars. After coming under criticism the model was rejected by the société and Rodin moved it to his home in Meudon. On July 2, 1939 (22 years after the sculptor’s death) the model was cast in bronze for the first time and placed on the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the intersection with Boulevard Raspail.

The Société des Gens de Lettres (Paris, France) considered four different artists for the sculptural work before it was given to Rodin. The first was French neoclassical artist Henri Chapu, however, Chapu died in 1891 before the work could be finalized. Marquet de Vasselot was the next artist considered for the sculpture and provided a bust of the writer for the Societé. At the same time artists Millet and Coutan also applied for the commission.

Rodin was not initially considered for the work because at that point in time, around 1885, his career had not become as prominent. After the death of Chapu, the recently elected president of the Societé, Émile Zola strongly supported Rodin for the job and, so, the artist submitted a proposal to have a completed three-meter statue of the French novelist within an eighteen-month period which was approved.

The commission was in response to the elevated importance of Honoré de Balzac after his death. Balzac was one of the founders of the Societé as well as the second president of the organization. Upon his death in 1850 interest in creating a statue to commemorate the writer quickly developed under the leadership of Alexandre Dumas, père.

In 1894, the Societé threatened to step in legally with the commission, turn the job over to artist Alexandre Falguière and take away Rodin’s payment. Yet Rodin continued to ask for extensions on time making over fifty studies and continuously distanced himself from a true physical portrayal, tending towards a more psychological representation. The artist became infatuated with capturing the essence of the author’s strength. In a message to writer Charles Chincholle in May, 1898, Rodin explained his artistic pursuit:

“The only thing I realize today is that the neck is too strong. I thought I had to enlarge it because according to me, modern sculpture must exaggerate the forms form the moral point of view. Through the exaggerated neck I wanted to represent strength I realize that the execution exceeded the idea.”

Finally in 1898, Rodin presented a plaster study of the Balzac statue in the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. The sculpture was not received well by the critics; Rodin took the negativity as a personal attack. Many disliked the grotesque stature of the figure while others criticized the work to be very similar to that of the Italian impressionist Medardo Rosso. As well, reports surfaced before the unveiling of the sculpture regarding anticipated dismay over the final outcome of the artwork. The Société des Gens de Lettres decided to disregard the commission to Rodin and not accept the sculpture.

Regardless of rejection from his commissionaires, contemporaries such as Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet supported Rodin in his point of view. A backlash against the rejection along with a petition signed by supporters in the artistic community proceeded, yet in the end, Rodin decidedly declined any bids for the work and placed the plaster artwork in his home at Meudon.

Advertisements

From Sappho Onwards

Couple saphique allongé, Auguste Rodin, c. 1897

Rodin’s fascination for Sapphic couples, which he shared with Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Louÿs, Paul Verlaine and his predecessor Gustave Courbet, was evident in several of his drawings.

 

“I am sorry to have to ask you to allow me to mention what everybody declares unmentionable. My justification shall be that we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted not only on persons who have corrupted children, but on others whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted rights as individuals. To a fully occupied person in normal health, with due opportunities for a healthy social enjoyment, the mere idea of the subject of the threatened prosecutions is so expressively disagreeable as to appear unnatural. But everybody does not find it so. There are among us highly respected citizens who have been expelled from public schools for giving effect to the contrary opinion; and there are hundreds of others who might have been expelled on the same ground had they been found out. Greek philosophers, otherwise of unquestioned virtue, have differed with us on the point. So have soldiers, sailors, convicts, and in fact members of all communities deprived of intercourse with women. A whole series of Balzac’s novels turns upon attachments formed by galley slaves for one another – attachments which are represented as redeeming them from utter savagery. Women, from Sappho onwards, have shown that this appetite is not confined to one sex. Now, I do not believe myself to be the only man in England acquainted with these facts. I strongly protest against any journalist writing, as nine out of ten are at this moment dipping their pens to write, as if he had never heard of such things except as vague and sinister rumors concerning the most corrupt phases in the decadence of Babylon, Greece & Rome. I appeal now to the champions of individual rights to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented to & desired by both, which concerns themselves alone. There is absolutely no justification for the law except the old theological one of making the secular arm the instrument of God’s vengeance. It is a survival from that discarded system with its stonings and burnings; and it survives because it is so unpleasant that men are loath to meddle with it even with the object of getting rid of it, lest they should be suspected of acting in their personal interest. We are now free to face with the evil of our relic of Inquisition law, and of the moral cowardice, which prevents our getting rid of it. For my own part, I protest against the principle of the law under which the warrants have been issued; and I hope that no attempt will be made to enforce its outrageous penalties in the case of adult men.”

 

George Bernard Shaw

Letter sent  to an editor of a Newspaper

1889

 

Portrait of a Mother

Anna Mathilda McNeill in Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whistler’s Mother) James Abbott Whistler, 1871

 
 

Shushan Adoyan by Arshile Gorky, 1936

 
 

Cornelia Nobel in Woman I by Willem De Kooning, 1952

 
 

Ginevra de’ Pozzi by Guido Reni, 1612

 
 

Marguerite Merlet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1860

 
 

Eugénie-Desirée Fournier by Édouard Manet, 1880

 
 

Ernestine Faivre by Georges Pierre Seurat, 1883

 
 

Marie-Francoise Oberson by  Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1838

 
 

Lucy Read by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1797

 
 

Laura Catherine Bjølstad by Edvard Munch, 1899

 
 

Countess Adèle Tapié de Celeyran by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1883

 
 

Katherine Kelso Johnston by Mary Cassat, 1878

 
 

Sophie Maurice by Franz Marc, 1902

 
 

Marie Soukupová by Egon Schiele, 1911

 
 

Anna Cornelia Carbentus by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

 
 

Alina Maria Chazal by Paul Gauguin, 1890

 
 

Anne Elisabeth Honorine Aubert by Paul Cézanne, 1866-67

 
 

Barbara Holper by Albrecht Dürer, 1490-93

 
 

Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck by Rembrandt, 1630

 
 

Gemma Cervetto by Giorgio De Chirico, 1911

 
 

Elizabeth Griffiths Smith by Edward Hopper, 1916-20

 
 

Anne Mary Hill was the inspiration and model for Mother Tucking Children Into Bed by Norman Rockwell, 1921

 
 

María Picasso y López by Pablo Picasso, 1896

 
 

Laura in Mum by David Hockney, 1985

 
 

Lucie Brasch by Lucian Freud, 1983

 
 

María del Pilar Barrientos by Diego Rivera, circa 1904

 
 

Flora Angulo by Fernando Botero, 1990

 
 

Felipa Domenech Ferrés by Salvador Dalí, 1920

 
 

Julia by Andy Warhol, 1974