Great European of the Week: Auguste Rodin – Nov 12

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Rodin’s genius went largely unnoticed until he was in his forties

Auguste Rodin, born 12 November 1840, is widely known as a sculptor most famous for his works “The Gates of Hell,” “The Burghers of Calais,” and “The Age of Bronze.”

Born in Paris, Rodin faced dejection from a young age. Due to nearsightedness that went undiagnosed throughout his childhood, he did poorly in classroom activities. While struggling at school, he sought refuge in sketching and drawing. His talent was noticeable by the time he was 13, when he began taking formal art classes. However, he received little praise from his schoolmates and instructors. His application to the École des Beaux-Arts was rejected three times, and as a result, he began working as a bricklayer, a profession he held for nearly two decades.

His discouragement ended while on a trip to Italy in the 1870s. While there, his eyes opened to the artistic possibilities beyond sketching and painting. He returned to Paris emboldened to exercise his creativity as a sculptor. His first sculpture, “The Age of Bronze,” features a man with clenched fists and his right hand over his head. The sculpture was first exhibited in 1878 and gained some recognition for its depiction of human suffering amidst ambition and anticipation for the future. In the 1880s Rodin became increasingly acclaimed for his sculptures. His work “The Burghers of Calais,” commissioned as a public monument and unveiled in 1895, gained particular notoriety. This work depicted a moment during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England in which six French citizens, sentenced to execution by English king Edward III, departed from the city of Calais to meet their fate.

Rodin's sculpture "The Burghers of Calais" serves as a reminder of the Continent's brutal legacy of war.

Rodin’s sculpture “The Burghers of Calais” serves as a reminder of the Continent’s brutal legacy of war.

In 1880, Rodin was also commissioned to produce a number of statues to be situated at the entrance of a new Parisian museum. This work, entitled “The Gates of Hell,” was inspired by various characters from Dante’s Inferno. The collection of sculptures took decades to complete and was never finished. Two of the most notable individual pieces of this work were “The Kiss”, which depicts the characters Paolo and Francesca in an embrace, and “The Thinker”, which represents Dante leaning forward to observe the gates of Hell as he contemplates the progression of his poem. Those who see the sculpture today notice a man with a powerful, muscular body capable of great feats, yet immobile as he is lost in thought.

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A powerful body immobilised by pontification: Rodin’s “Thinker” reminds us of the European Union’s strong capacity for both change and inaction.

Auguste Rodin serves as a powerful example of a great European. Although he spent most of his life in France, it was through travelling to Italy that his inspiration was captivated and he began sculpting. He serves as a reminder that the freedom of movement guaranteed by the European Union opens citizens to motivation through encounters with cultures that are, although on the surface “foreign,” also part of their own identity. And when one contemplates his greatest work, “The Thinker,” mounted in Laeken Cemetery in Brussels, we are reminded of the European Union, a powerful international body that reforms at a sluggish pace while lost in thought.

Image ‘Musée Rodin’ courtesy to Bob Hall via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0.

Image ‘Calais, France 1504’ courtesy to natamagat via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0.

Image ‘Rodin’ courtesy to Pierre Lannes via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0.

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