Rodin – Of Yesterday And Of Today

A FEW days ago I accompanied Auguste Rodin, who was on his way to the Louvre, to see once again the busts by Houdon.

We were no sooner in front of the bust of Voltaire than the Master cried :

” What a marvel it is! It is the personification of malice. See! his sidelong glance seems watching some adversary. He has the pointed nose of a fox; it seems smelling out from side to side for abuses and follies. You can see it quiver! And the mouth — what a triumph! It is framed by two furrows of irony. It seems to mumble sarcasms.

” A cunning old gossip — that is the impression produced by this Voltaire, at once so lively, so sickly, and so little masculine.”

After a moment of contemplation he continued: ” The eyes! I always come back to them. They are transparent. They are luminous.

” But you can say as much of all busts by Houdon. This sculptor understood how to render the transparency of the pupils better than any painter or pastellist. He perforated them, bored them, cut them out; he cleverly raised a certain unevenness in them which, catching or losing the light, gives a singular effect and imitates the sparkle of life in the pupil. And what diversity in the expression of the eyes of all these faces! Cunning in Voltaire, good fellowship in Franklin, authority in Mira-beau, gravity in Washington, joyous tenderness in Madame Houdon, roguishness in his daughter and in the two charming little Brongniart children. To this sculptor the glance is more than half the expression. Through the eyes he read souls. They kept no secrets from him. So there is no need to ask if his busts were good likenesses.”

At that word I stopped Rodin. ” You consider, then, that resemblance is a very important quality? ”

” Certainly; indispensable.”

” Yet many artists say that busts and portraits can be very fine without being good likenesses. I remember a remark on this subject attributed to Henner. A lady complained to him that the portrait which he had painted of her did not look like her.

“He ! Matame,’ he replied in his Alsatian jargon, `when you are dead your heirs will think themselves fortunate to possess a fine portrait by Henner and will trouble themselves very little to know if it was like you or not.’ ”

” It is possible that the painter said that,” Rodin answered, ” but it was doubtless a sally which did not represent his real thought, for I do not believe that he had such false ideas in an art in which he showed great talent.

” But first let us understand the kind of resemblance demanded in a bust or portrait.

“If the artist only reproduces superficial features as photography does, if he copies the lineaments of a face exactly, without reference to character, he deserves no admiration. The resemblance which he ought to obtain is that of the soul; that alone matters ; it is that which the sculptor or painter should seek beneath the mask of features.

“In a word, all the features must be expressive — that is to say, of use in the revelation of a conscience.”

“But doesn’t it sometimes happen that the face contradicts the soul?”


“Have you forgotten the precept of La Fontaine, ‘Il ne faut point juger les gens sur l’apparence ‘ ? ”

” That maxim is only addressed to superficial observers. For appearances may deceive their hasty examination. La Fontaine writes that the little mouse took the cat for the kindest of creatures, but he speaks of a little mouse — that is to say, of a scatterbrain who lacked critical faculty. The appearance of a cat would warn whoever studied it attentively that there was cruelty hidden under that sleepiness. A physiognomist can easily distinguish between a cajoling air and one of real kindness, and it is precisely the role of the artist to show the truth, even beneath dissimulation.

” To tell the truth, there is no artistic work which requires as much penetration as the bust and the portrait. It is sometimes said the artist’s profession demands more manual skill than intelligence. You have only to study a good bust to correct this error. Such a work is worth a whole biography. Houdon’s busts, for example, are like chapters of written memoirs. Period, race, profession, personal character — all are indicated there.

” Here is Rousseau opposite Voltaire. Great shrewdness in his glance. It is the quality common to all the personages of the eighteenth century; they are critics; they question all the principles which were unquestioningly accepted before; they have searching eyes.

” Now for his origin. He is the Swiss plebeian. Rousseau is as unpolished, almost vulgar, as Voltaire is aristocratic and distinguished. Prominent cheekbones, short nose, square chin — you recognize the son of the watchmaker and the whilom domestic.

” Profession now: he is the philosopher; sloping, thoughtful forehead, antique type accentuated by the classic band about his head. Appearance purposely wild, hair neglected, a certain resemblance to some Diogenes or Menippus ; this is the preacher of the return to nature and to the primitive life.

” Individual character : a general contraction of the face; this is the misanthrope. Eyebrows contracted, forehead lined with care; this is the man who complains, often with reason, of persecution.

” I ask you if this is not a better commentary on the man than his Confessions?

” Now Mirabeau. Period; challenging attitude, wig disarranged, dress careless ; a breath of the revolutionary tempest passes over this wild beast, who is ready to roar an answer.

” Origin; dominating aspect, fine arched eye-brows, haughty forehead; this is the former aristocrat. But the democratic heaviness of the pock-marked cheeks and of the neck sunk. between the shoulders betrays the Count de Riquetti to the sympathies of Thiers, whose interpreter he has become.

” Profession: the tribune. The mouth protrudes like a speaking-trumpet ready to fling his voice abroad. He lifts his head because, like most orators; he was short. In this type of man nature develops the chest, the barrel, at the expense of height. The eyes are not fixed on any one; they rove over a great assembly. It is a glance at once vague and superb. Tell me, is it not a marvellous achievement to evoke in this one head a whole crowd — more, a whole listening country?

” Finally, the individual character. Observe the sensuous lips, the double chin, the quivering nostrils; you will recognize the faults — habit of debauch and demand for enjoyment. All is there, I tell you.

” It would be easy to sketch the same character outline from all the busts of Houdon.

” Here, again, is Franklin. A ponderous air, heavy falling cheeks; this is the former artisan. The long hair of the apostle, a kindly benevolence ; this is the popular moralizer, good-natured Richard.

” A stubborn high forehead inclined forward, indicative of the obstinacy of which Franklin gave proof in winning an education, in rising, in becoming an eminent scholar, finally in freeing his country. Astuteness in the eyes and in the corners of the mouth; Houdon was not duped by the general massiveness, and he divined the prudent material-ism of the calculator who made a fortune, and the cunning of the diplomat who wormed out the secrets of English politics. Here, living, is one of the ancestors of modern America !

” Well! Here, in these remarkable busts, do we not find the fragmentary chronicle of half a century? And, as in the finest written narratives, what pleases most in these memoirs in terra-cotta, in marble and in bronze, is the brilliant grace of the style, the lightness of the hand that wrote them, the generosity of this charming personality, so essentially French, who created them. Houdon is Saint-Simon without his aristocratic prejudices; is Saint-Simon as witty but more magnanimous. Ah ! what a divine artist ! ”

” It must be very difficult,” I said, verifying in the busts before us the interpretation of my companion, ” to penetrate so profoundly into the consciousness of others.”

” Yes, doubtless.” Then, with a shade of irony, ” But the greatest difficulties for the artist who models a bust or who paints a portrait do not come from the work which he executes. They come from the client for whom he works. By a strange and fatal law, the one who orders his own likeness is the one who always desperately combats the talent of the artist he has chosen. It is very seldom that a man sees himself as he is, and even if he knows himself, he does not wish the artist to represent him as he is. He asks to be represented under the most banal and neutral aspect. He wishes to be an official or worldly marionette. It pleases him to have the function he exercises, the rank he holds in society, completely efface the man that is in him. The magistrate wishes his robe, the general his gold-laced tunic. They care very little whether one can read their characters.

” This explains the success of so many mediocre painters and sculptors who are satisfied to give the impersonal appearance of their clients : their gold lace and their official attitude. These are the artists who are generally highest in favor because they lend their models a mask of riches and importance. The more bombastic a portrait is, the more it resembles a stiff, pretentious doll, the better the client is satisfied.

” Perhaps it was not always so.

” Certain seigneurs of the fifteenth century, for example, seem to have been pleased to see themselves portrayed as hyenas or vultures on the medals of Pisanello. They were doubtless proud of their individuality. Or, better still, they loved and venerated art, and they accepted the rude frankness of the artist, as though it were a penance imposed by a spiritual director.

” Titian did not hesitate to give Pope Paul III. a marten’s snout, nor to emphasize the domineering hardness of Charles V., or the salaciousness of Francis I., and it does not appear to have dam-aged his reputation with them. Velasquez, who portrayed King Philip IV. as a nonentity, though an elegant man, and who unflatteringly reproduced his hanging jaw, nevertheless kept his favor. And the Spanish monarch has acquired from posterity the great glory of having been the protector of genius.

” But the men of today are so made that they fear truth and love a lie. They seem to be displeased to appear in their busts as they are. They all want to have the air of hairdressers.

” And even the most beautiful women, that is to say, those whose lines have most style, are horrified at their own beauty when a sculptor of talent is its interpreter. They beseech him to make them ugly by giving them an insignificant and doll-like physiognomy.

” So, to execute a bust is to fight a long battle. The one thing that matters is not to weaken and to rest honest with one’s self. If the work is refused, so much the worse. So much the better perhaps; for often, it proves that it is full of merit.

” As for the client who, though discontented, accepts a successful work, his bad humor is only temporary; for soon the connoisseurs compliment him on the bust and he ends by admiring it. Then he declares quite naturally that he has always liked it.

” Moreover, it should be noticed that the busts which are executed gratuitously for friends or relations are the best. It is not only because the artist knows his models better from seeing them constantly and loving them. It is, above all, because the gratuitousness of his work confers on him the liberty of working as he pleases.

” Nevertheless, the best busts are often refused, even when offered as gifts. Though masterpieces, they are considered insulting by those for whom they are intended. The sculptor must go his own way and find all his pleasure, all his reward, in doing his best.”

I was much interested in this psychology of the public with which the artist has to deal; but it must be said that a good deal of bitterness entered into Rodin’s irony.

” Master,” I said, ” among the trials of your profession, there is one that you seem to have omitted. That is, to do the bust of a client whose head is without expression or betrays obvious stupidity.”

Rodin laughed. ” That cannot count among the trials,” he replied. ” You must not forget my favorite maxim: Nature is always beautiful. We need only to understand what she shows us. You speak of a face without expression. There is no such face to an artist. To him every head is interesting. Let a sculptor note the insipidity of a face, let him show us a fool absorbed by his care of worldly parade, and there we have a fine bust.

” Besides, what is called shallowness is often only a conscience which has not developed owing to a lack of education, and in that case, the face offers the mysterious and fascinating spectacle of an intellect which seems enveloped in a veil.

” Finally — how shall I put it? — even the most insignificant head is the dwelling-place of life, that magnificent force, and so offers inexhaustible mat-ter for the masterpiece.”

Several days later I saw in Rodin’s atelier at Meudon the casts of many of his finest busts, and I seized the occasion to ask him to tell me of the memories they recalled.

His Victor Hugo was there, deep in meditation, the forehead strangely furrowed, volcanic, the hair wild, almost like white flames bursting from his skull. It was the very personification of modern lyricism, profound and tumultuous.

” It was my friend Bazire,” said Rodin, ” who presented me to Victor Hugo. Bazire was the secretary of the newspaper, La Marseillaise, and later of. l’Intransigeant. He adored Victor Hugo. It was he who started the idea of a public celebration of the great man’s eightieth birthday.

” The celebration, as you know, was both solemn and touching. The poet from his balcony saluted an immense crowd who had come before his house to acclaim him; he seemed a patriarch blessing his family. Because of that day, he kept a tender gratitude for the man who had arranged it. And that was how Bazire introduced me to his presence without difficulty.

” Unfortunately, Victor Hugo had just been martyred by a mediocre sculptor named Villain, who, to make a bad bust, had insisted on thirty-eight sittings. So when I timidly expressed my desire to reproduce the features of the author of Contemplation, he knit his Olympian brows.

“I cannot prevent your working,’ he said, but I warn you that I will not pose. I will not change one of my habits on your account. Make what arrangements you like.’

” So I came and I made a great number of flying pencil notes to facilitate my work of modelling later. Then I brought my stand and some clay. But naturally I could only install this untidy paraphernalia in the veranda, and as Victor Hugo was generally in the drawing-room with his friends, you may imagine the difficulty of my task. I would study the great poet attentively, and endeavor to impress his image on my memory; then suddenly with a run I would reach the veranda to fix in clay the memory of what I had just seen. But often, on the way, my impression had weakened, so that when I arrived before my stand I dared not touch the clay, and I had to resolve to return to my model again.

” When I had nearly finished my work, Dalou asked me to introduce him to Victor Hugo, and I willingly rendered him this service, but the glorious old man died soon after, and Dalou could only do his best from a cast taken after death.”

Rodin led me as he spoke to a glass case which enclosed a singular block of stone. It was the keystone of an arch, the stone which the architect sets in the centre to sustain the curve. On the face of this stone was carved a mask, squared along the cheeks and temples, following the shape of the block. I recognized the face of Victor Hugo.

” I always imagine this the keystone at the en-trance of a building dedicated to poetry,” said the master sculptor.

I could easily fancy it. The brow of Victor Hugo thus supporting the weight of a monumental arch would symbolize the genius on which all the thought and all the activity of an epoch had rested.

” I give this idea to any architect who will put it into execution,” Rodin added.

Close by stood the cast of the bust of Henri Rochefort. It is well known; the head of an insurgent, the forehead as full of bumps as that of a pugnacious child who is always fighting his companions, the wild tuft of hair which seems to wave like a signal for mutiny, the mouth twisted by irony, the mad beard ; a continual revolt, the very spirit of criticism and combativeness. Admirable work it is, in which one sees one side of our contemporary mentality reflected.

” It was also through Bazire,” said Rodin, ” that I made the acquaintance of Henri Rochefort, who was editor-in-chief of his newspaper. The celebrated polemic consented to pose to me. He had such a joyous spirit that it was an enchantment to listen to him, but he could not keep still for a single instant. He reproached me pleasantly for having too much professional conscience. He said laughingly that I spent one sitting in adding a lump of clay to the model and the next in taking it away.

” When, some time after, his bust received the approbation of men of taste, he joined unreservedly in their praises, but he would never believe that my work had remained exactly as it was when I took it away from his house. ` You have re-touched it very much,’ he would repeat. In reality, I had not even touched it with my nail.”

Rodin, placing one of his hands over the tuft of hair and the other over the beard, then asked me, ” What impression does it make now? ”

” You would say it was a Roman emperor.”

” That is just what I wanted to make you say. I have never found the Latin classic type as pure as in Rochefort.”

If this ancient enemy of the Empire does not yet know this paradoxical resemblance of his profile to that of the Caesars, I wager that it will make him smile.

When Rodin, a moment before, had spoken of Dalou, I had seen in thought his bust of this sculptor which is at the Luxembourg. It is a proud, challenging head, with the thin, sinewy neck of a child of the faubourgs, the bristly beard of an artisan, a contracted forehead, the wild eyebrows of an ancient communist, and the feverish and haughty air of the irreducible democrat. For the rest, the large fine eyes and the delicate incurvation of the temples reveal the passionate lover of beauty.

In answer to a question, Rodin replied that he had modelled this bust at a moment when Dalou, profiting by the amnesty, had returned from England.

” He never took it away,” he said, ” for our relations ended just after I had introduced him to Victor Hugo.

” Dalou was a great artist, and many of his works have a superb decorative value which allies them to the most beautiful groups of our seventeenth century.

” If he had not had the weakness to desire an official position he would never have produced any-thing but masterpieces. But he aspired to become the Le Brun of our Republic and the leader of all our contemporary artists. He died before he succeeded in his ambition.

” It is impossible to exercise two professions at once. All the activity that is expended in acquiring useful relations and in playing a role is lost to art. Intriguers are not fools; when an artist wishes to compete with them he must expend as much effort as they do, and he will have hardly any time left for work.

” Who knows? If Dalou had always stayed in his atelier peacefully pursuing his calling, he would have without doubt brought forth marvels whose beauty would have astonished all eyes, and common consent would have perhaps awarded him that artistic sovereignty to whose conquest he unsuccessfully used all his skill.

” His ambition, however, was not entirely vain, for his influence at the Hotel de Ville gave us one of the great masterpieces of our time. It was he who, in spite of the undisguised hostility of the administrative committee, gave the order to Puvis de Chavannes for the decoration of the stairway at the Hotel de Ville. And you know with what heavenly poetry the great painter illuminated the walls of the municipal building.”

These words called attention to the bust of Puvis de Chavannes.

” He carried his head high,” Rodin said. ” His skull, solid and round, seemed made to wear a helmet. His arched chest seemed accustomed to carry the breastplate. It was easy to imagine him at Pavia fighting for his honor by the side of Francis I.”

In the bust you recognize the aristocracy of an old race. The high forehead and eyebrows reveal the philosopher, and the calm glance, embracing a wide outlook, betrays the great decorator, the sublime landscapist. There is no modern artist for whom Rodin professes more admiration, more profound respect, than for the painter of Sainte-Genevieve.

” To think that he has lived among us,” he cries; ” to think that this genius, worthy of the most radiant epochs of art, has spoken to us ! That I have seen him, have pressed his hand! It seems as if I had pressed the hand of Nicolas Poussin! ”

What a charming remark! To put the figure of a contemporary back into the past, in order to range it there by one of those who shine brightest, and then to be so moved at the very thought of physical contact with this demi-god — could any homage be more touching?

Rodin continued : “Puvis de Chavannes did not like my bust of him, and it was one of the bitter things of my career. He thought that I had caricatured him. And yet I am certain that I have expressed in my sculpture all the enthusiasm and veneration that I felt for him.”

The bust of Puvis made me think of that of Jean-Paul Laurens, which is also in the Luxembourg.

A round head, the face mobile, enthusiastic, almost breathless — this is a Southerner — some-thing archaic and rude in the expression—eyes which seem haunted by distant visions — it is the painter of half-savage epochs, when men were robust and impetuous.

Rodin said : “Laurens is one of my oldest friends. I posed for one of the Merovingian warriors who, in the decoration of the Pantheon, assist at the death of Sainte-Genevieve. His affection for me has always been faithful. It was he who got me the order for the Bourgeois de Calais. Though it did not bring me much, be-cause I delivered six figures in bronze for the price they offered me for one, yet I owe him pro-found gratitude for having spurred me to the creation of one of my best works.

“It was a great pleasure to me to do his bust. He reproached me in a friendly way for having done him with his mouth open. I replied that, from the design of his skull, he was probably descended from the ancient Visigoths of Spain, and that this type was characterized by the prominence of the lower jaw. But I do not know whether he agreed to the justice of this ethnographical observation.”

At this moment I perceived a bust of Falguiere. Fiery, eruptive character, his face sown with wrinkles and bumps like a land ravaged by storms, the moustaches of a grumbler, hair thick and short.

” He was a little bull,” said Rodin.

I noted the thickness of the neck, where the folds of skin almost formed a dewlap, the square of forehead, the head bent and obstinate, ready for a forward plunge. A little bull! Rodin often makes these comparisons with the animal kingdom. Such a one, with his long neck and automatic gestures, is a bird which pilfers right and left; such another, too amiable, too coquettish, is a King Charles spaniel, and so on. These comparisons evidently facilitate the work of the mind which seeks to class all physiognomies in general categories.

Rodin told me under what circumstances he knew Falguiere.

” It was,” he said, ” when the Societe des Gens de Lettres refused my Balzac. Falguiere, to whom the order was then given, insisted on showing me, by his friendship, that he did not at all agree with my detractors. Actuated by sympathy I offered to do his bust. He considered it a great success when it was finished — he even defended it, I know, against those who criticised it in his presence; and, in his turn, he did my bust, which is very fine.”

As I was turning away I caught sight of a copy in bronze of the bust of Berthelot. Rodin made it only a year before the death of the great chemist. The great scholar rests in the knowledge of his work accomplished. He meditates. He is alone, face to face with himself ; alone, face to face with the crumbling of ancient faiths; alone before nature, some of whose secrets he has penetrated, but which remains so immensely mysterious; alone at the edge of the infinite abyss of the skies; and his tormented brow, his lowered eyes, are filled with melancholy. This fine head is like the emblem of modern intelligence, which, satiated with knowledge, weary of thought, ends by demanding ” What is the use? ”

All the busts which I had been admiring and about which my host had been talking now grouped themselves in my mind, and they appeared to me as a rich treasure of documents upon our epoch.

If Houdon,” I said, ” has written memoirs of the eighteenth century, you have written those of the end of the nineteenth. Your style is more harsh, more violent than that of your predecessor, your expressions are less elegant, but more natural and more dramatic, if I may say so.

” The scepticism which in the eighteenth century was distinguished and full of raillery has become, in you, rough and sharp. Houdon’s people were more sociable, yours are more self-centred. Those of Houdon criticised the abuses of a regime, yours seem to question the value of human life itself and to feel the anguish of unrealized desires.”

Rodin answered, ” I have done my best. I have not lied; I have never flattered my contemporaries. My busts have often displeased because they were always very sincere. They certainly have one merit — veracity. Let it serve them for beauty!”