Rodin – On The Usefullness Of The Artist

THE day before the vernissage (varnishing day), I met Auguste Rodin at the Salon de la Societe Nationale in Paris. He was accompanied by two of his pupils, themselves pastmasters : the sculptor Bourdelle, who was this year exhibiting a fierce Hercules piercing the Stymphalian birds with his arrows, and Despiau, who models exquisitely clever busts.

All three had stopped before a figure of the god Pan, which Bourdelle had whimsically carved in the likeness of Rodin, and the creator of the work was excusing himself for the two small horns which he had set upon the master’s forehead.

” You had to do it,” Rodin replied, laughing, ” because you are representing Pan. Michael Angelo gave just such horns to his Moses. They are the emblem of omnipotence and omniscience, and I assure you that I am flattered to have been so favored by your attentions.”

As it was now noon, Rodin invited us all three to lunch with him somewhere in the neighborhood.

We passed out into the Avenue des Champs Elysees, where beneath the crude young green of the chestnut-trees the motors and carriages slipped by in shining files, all the brilliance of Parisian life flashing here from its brightest and most fascinating setting.

” Where are we going to lunch? ” Bourdelle asked, pausing with comical anxiety. ” In the big restaurants about here we shall be waited upon by solemn men-servants in dress-coats, which I cannot bear. They frighten me. I advise some quiet little restaurant where the cabbies go.”

” The food is really better there than in these gorgeous places,” Despiau declared. ” Here the food is too sophisticated.”

He had expressed Bourdelle’s secret thought; for Bourdelle, in spite of his pretended modesty, is a gourmand.

Rodin agreeing, allowed them to lead him to a little eating-house hidden in a side-street off the Champs Elysees, where we chose a quiet corner and installed ourselves comfortably.

Despiau, who has a lively disposition, began teasing Bourdelle. ” Help yourself, Bourdelle,” he said, passing him a dish, ” though you know you don’t deserve to be fed, because you are an artist —that is to say, of no use to any one.”

” I pardon you this impertinence,” Bourdelle answered, “because you take half for yourself.” He began gayly, but ended in a momentary crisis of pessimism, as he added : ” But I won’t contradict you. It is true that we are good for nothing. When I think of my father, who was a stone-cutter, I say to myself, ` His work was necessary to society. He prepared the building materials for men’s houses.’ I can see him now, good old man, conscientiously sawing his blocks of free-stone, winter and summer, in the open workshop. His was a rugged type such as we do not see nowadays. But I — but we — what service do we render to our kind? We are jugglers, mountebanks, dreamers, who amuse the people in the marketplace. They scarcely deign to take an interest in our efforts. Few people are capable of understanding them. And I do not know whether we really deserve their good-will, for the world could very well get on without us.”


It was Rodin who answered. ” I do not believe that our friend Bourdelle means a word of what he says. As for me, my opinion is entirely opposed to his. I believe that artists are the most useful of men.”

Bourdelle laughed. ” You are blinded by love of your profession.”‘

” Not at all, for my opinion rests on very sound reasons, which I will tell you. But first have some of this wine which the patron recommends. It will put you in a better frame of mind to listen to me.” When he had poured it out for us, he resumed: ” To begin with — have you reflected that in mod-ern society artists, I mean true artists, are about the only men who take any pleasure in their work? ”

” It is certain that work is all our joy, all our life,” Bourdelle cried, ” but that does not mean that — ”

” Wait! It seems to me that what is most lacking in our contemporaries is love of their profession. They only accomplish their tasks grudgingly. They would willingly strike. It is so from the top to the bottom of the social ladder. The politician sees in his office only the material advantages which he can gain from it, and he does not seem to know the pride which the old statesmen felt in the skilful direction of the affairs of their country.

” The manufacturer, instead of upholding the honor of his brand, strives only to make as much money as he can by adulterating his products. The workman, feeling a more or less legitimate hostility for his employer, slights his work. Almost all the men of our day seem to regard work as a frightful necessity, as a cursed drudgery, while it ought to be considered as our happiness and our excuse for living.

” You must not think that it has always been so. Most of the objects which remain to us from the old days, furniture, utensils, stuffs, show a great conscientiousness in those who made them.

” Man likes to work well, quite as much as to work badly. I even believe that it is more agree-able to him, more natural to him, that he prefers to work well. But he listens sometimes to good, sometimes to bad advice, and gives preference to the bad.

” And yet, how much happier humanity would be if work, instead of a means to existence, were its end! But, in order that this marvellous change may come about, all mankind must follow the example of the artist, or, better yet, become artists themselves; for the word artist, in its widest acceptation, means to me the man who takes pleasure in what he does. So it would be desirable were there artists in all trades — artist carpenters, happy in skilfully raising beam and mortice — artist masons, spreading the plaster with pleasure — artist carters, proud of caring for their horses and of not running over those in the street. Is it not true that that would constitute an admirable society?

, ” You see, then, that artists set an example to the rest of the world which might be marvellously fruitful.”

” Well argued,” cried Despiau; ” I take back what I said, Bourdelle. I acknowledge that you deserve your food. Do take a little more asparagus.”


” Ah, Master!” I said, ” you doubtless have the gift of persuasion. But, after all, what is the good of proving the usefulness of artists? Certainly, as you have shown us, their passion for work might set a good example. But is not the work which they do at the bottom useless, and is it not that precisely which gives it value in our eyes? ”

” What do you mean? ”

” I mean, that happily works of art do not count among useful things, that is to say, amongst those that serve to feed us, to clothe us, to shelter us — in a word, to satisfy our bodily needs. On the contrary, they tear us from the slavery of practical life and open before us an enchanted land of contemplation and of dreams.”

” The point is, my dear friend, that we are usually mistaken in what is useful and what is not,” Rodin answered. I admit that we must call useful all that ministers to the necessities of our material life. But today, besides that, riches are also considered useful, though their display only arouses vanity and excites envy; these riches are not only useless, but cumbersome.

” As for me, I call useful all that gives us happiness. Well, there is nothing in the world that makes us happier than contemplation and dreams. We forget this too much in our day. The man who, with just a sufficiency, wisely enjoys the numberless wonders which meet his eyes and mind at every turn — who rejoices in the beauty and vigor of the youth about him; who sees in the animals, those wonderful living machines, all their supple and nervous movements and the play of their muscles ; who finds delight in the valleys and upon the hillsides where the spring spends itself in green and flowery festival, in waves of incense, in the murmur of bees, in rustling wings and songs of love; who feels an ecstasy as he watches the silver ripples, which seem to smile as they chase each other upon the surface of the water; who can, with renewed enthusiasm, each day watch Apollo, the golden god, disperse the clouds which Earth wraps closely around her; the man who can find joy in all this walks the earth a god.

“What mortal is more fortunate than he? And since it is art which teaches us, which aids us to appreciate these pleasures, who will deny that it is infinitely useful to us? It is not only a question of intellectual pleasures, however, but of much more. Art shows man his raison d’etre. It reveals to him the meaning of life, it enlightens him upon his destiny, and consequently points him on his way. When Titian painted that marvellously aristocratic society, where each person carries written in his face, imprinted in his gestures and noted in his costume, the pride of intellect, of authority and of wealth, he set before the patricians of Venice the ideal which they wished to realize. When Poussin composed his clear, majestic, orderly landscapes, where Reason seems to reign; when Puget swelled the muscles of his heroes; when Watteau sheltered his charming yet melancholy lovers beneath mysterious shades ; when Houdon caused Voltaire to smile, and Diana, the huntress, to run so lightly; when Rude, in carving the Marseillaise, called old men and children to his country’s aid — these great French masters polished in turn some of the facets of our national soul; this one, order; this one, energy; this one, elegance; this one, wit; this one, heroism; and all, the joy of life and of free action, and they kept alive in their compatriots the distinctive qualities of our race.

” Take the greatest artist of our time, Puvis de Chavannes — did he not strive to shed upon us the serenity to which we all aspire? Are there not wonderful lessons for us in his sublime landscapes, where holy Nature seems to cradle upon her bosom a loving, wise, august, simple humanity? Help for the weak, love of work, self-denial, respect for high thought, this incomparable genius has ex-pressed it all! It is a marvellous light upon our epoch. It is enough to look upon one of his masterpieces, his Sainte Genevieve in the Pantheon, his Holy Wood (Bois Sacre) in the Sorbonne, or his magnificent Homage to Victor Hugo (Hommage a Victor Hugo) on the stairway of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, to feel oneself capable of noble deeds.

” Artists and thinkers are like lyres, infinitely delicate and sonorous, whose vibrations, awakened by the circumstances of each epoch, are prolonged to the ears of all other mortals.

” Without doubt, very fine works of art are appreciated only by a limited number; and even in galleries and public squares they are looked at only by a few. But, nevertheless, the thoughts they embody end by filtering through to the crowd. Below the men of genius there are other artists of less scope, who borrow and popularize the conceptions of the masters : writers are influenced by painters, painters by writers; there is a continual exchange of thought between all the brains of a generation — the journalists, the popular novelists, the illustrators, the makers of pictures bring within the reach of the multitude the truths discovered by the powerful intellects of the day. It is like a spiritual stream, like a spring pouring forth in many cascades, which finally meet to form the great moving river which represents the mentality of an era.

” And it should not be said, as it is sometimes, that artists only reflect the feeling of their surroundings.. Even this would be much; for it is well to hold up a mirror in which other men may see themselves, and so to aid them to self-knowledge. But artists do more. Certainly they draw largely from the common fund amassed by tradition, but they also increase this treasure. They are truly inventors and guides.

” In order to convince oneself of this, it is enough to observe that most of the masters preceded, and sometimes by a long period, the time when their works won recognition. Poussin painted a number of masterpieces under Louis XIII. whose regular nobility foretold the character of the following reign; Watteau, whose nonchalant grace would seem to have presided over all the reign of Louis XV., did not live under that King, but under Louis XIV., and died under the Regent; Chardin and Greuze, who, in celebrating the bourgeois home, would seem to have announced a democratic society, lived under a monarchy; Prudhon, mystical, sweet and weary, claimed, in the midst of strident imperial fanfares, the right to love, to meditate, to dream, and he affirmed it as the forerunner of the romantics. Nearer to us, Courbet and Millet, under the Second Empire, pictured the sorrows and the dignity of the people, who since then, under the Third Republic, have won so preponderant a place in society.

” I do not say that these artists determined these great currents, I only say that they unconsciously contributed to form them; I say that they made part of the intellectual elite who created these tendencies. And it goes without saying that this elite is not composed of artists only, but also of writers, philosophers, novelists and publicists.

” What still further proves that the masters bring new ideas and tendencies to their generations is that they have often great trouble in winning acknowledgment for them. They sometimes pass nearly all their lives in striving against routine. And the more genius they have, the more chance they run of being long misunderstood. Corot, Courbet, Millet, Puvis de Chavannes, to cite no more, were not unanimously acclaimed until the end of their careers.

” It is impossible to do good to mankind with impunity. But, at least, the masters of art, by their determination to enrich the human soul, have deserved that their names should be held sacred after their deaths.

” There, my friends, is what I wished to say to you upon the usefulness of artists.”


I declared that I was convinced.

” I only want to be,” said Bourdelle, ” for I adore my work, and my grumbling was doubtless the effect of a passing mood; or, perhaps, anxious to hear an apology for my profession, I behaved like a coquette who complains of being ugly in order to provoke a compliment.”

There was silence for several instants, for we were thinking of what had been said.

Then, realizing that Rodin had modestly omitted himself in indicating the influence of the masters, I said : ” Master, you have yourself exercised an influence on your epoch, which will certainly be prolonged to succeeding generations.

” In emphasizing so strongly the inner truth, you will have aided in the evolution of our modern life. You have shown the immense value which each one of us today attaches to his thoughts, to his affections, to his dreams, and often to his wandering passions. You have recorded the intoxication of love, maiden reveries, the madness of desire, the ecstasy of. meditation, the transports of hope, the crises of dejection. You have ceaselessly explored the mysterious domain of the individual conscience, and you have found it ever more vast. You have observed that in this era upon which we have entered, nothing has more importance for us than our own feelings, our own intimate personality. You have seen that each one of us, the man of thought, the man of action, the mother, the young girl, the lover, places the centre of the universe in his own soul. And this disposition, of which we were ourselves almost unconscious, you have revealed to us.

” Following upon Victor Hugo, who, celebrating in his poetry the joys and the sorrows of private existence, sang the mother rocking the cradle, the father at the grave of his child, the lover absorbed in happy memories, you have expressed in sculpture the deepest, most secret emotions of the soul.

” And there is no doubt but that this powerful wave of individualism which is passing over the old society will modify it little by little. There is no doubt but that, thanks to the efforts of the great artists and the great thinkers, who ask each one of us to consider himself as an end sufficient unto himself, and to live according to the dictates of his own heart, humanity will end by sweeping aside all the tyrannies which still oppress the individual and will suppress the social inequalities which subject one to another, the poor to the rich, the woman to the man, the weak to the strong.

” You, yourself, by the sincerity of your art, will have worked towards the coming of this new order.”

But Rodin answered with a smile:

” Your great friendship accords me too large a place among the champions of modern thought. It is true, at least, that I have striven to be of use by formulating as clearly as I could my vision of people and of things.”

In a moment he went on:

” If I have insisted on our usefulness, and if I still insist upon it, it is because this consideration alone can recall to us the sympathy which is our due in the world in which we are living. Today, every one is engrossed by self-interest; but I would like to see this practical society convinced that it is at least as much to its advantage to honor the artist as to honor the manufacturer and the engineer.”