THAT fine old house known as ” l’Hotel de Biron,” which stands in a quiet street on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, and which was but lately the Convent of the Sacred Heart, has, since the suppression of the sisterhoods, been occupied by several tenants, among whom is Rodin.
The Master, as we have seen, has other ateliers at Meudon and at the Depot des Marbres in Paris, but he has a special liking for this one.
Built in the eighteenth century, the town house of a powerful family, it is certainly as beautiful a dwelling as any artist could desire. The great rooms are lofty, panelled in white, with beautiful mouldings in white and gold. The one in which Rodin works is a rotunda opening by high French windows into a delightful garden.
For several years now this garden has been neglected. But it is still possible to trace, among the riotous weeds, the ancient lines of box which bordered the alleys, to follow, beneath fantastic vines, the shape of green trellised arbors ; and there each spring the flowers reappear, pushing through the grasses in the borders. Nothing induces a more delicious melancholy than this spectacle of the gradual effacement of human toil at the hands of invading nature.
At l’Hotel de Biron Rodin passes nearly all his time in drawing.
In this quiet retreat he loves to isolate himself and to consign to paper, in numberless pencil sketches, the graceful attitudes which his models take before him.
One evening I was looking over a series of these studies with him, and was admiring the harmonious lines by which he had reproduced all the rhythm of the human body upon paper.
The outlines, dashed in with a single stroke, evoked the fire or the abandon of the movements, and his thumb had interpreted by a very slight shade the charm of the modelling. As he studied the drawings he seemed to see again in mind the models who were their originals. He constantly exclaimed :
Ah! this one’s shoulders, what a delight! A curve of perfect beauty! My drawing is too heavy! I tried indeed, but ! See, here is a second attempt from the same woman. This is more like her. And yet !
“And just look at this one’s throat, the adorable elegance of this swelling line, it has an almost intangible grace !
“Master,” I asked, “is it easy to find good models ? ”
” Then beauty is not very rare in France?”
” No, I tell you.”
” But tell me, do you not think that the beauty of the antique much surpassed that of our day, and that modern women are far from equalling those who posed for Phidias?’
” Not at all.”
” Yet the perfection of the Greek Venuses ”
” The artists in those days had eyes to see, while those of to-day are blind; that is all the difference. The Greek women were beautiful, but their beauty lived above all in the minds of the sculptors who carved them.
” Today there are women just like them. They are principally in the South of Europe. The modern Italians, for example, belong to the same Mediterranean type as the models of Phidias. This type has for its special characteristic the equal width of shoulders and hips.”
” But did not the invasion of the barbarians by a mixture of race alter the standard of antique beauty? ”
” No. Even if we suppose that the barbarians were less beautiful, less well-proportioned than the Mediterranean race, which is possible, time has effectually wiped’ out any stains produced by a mixed blood, and has again produced the harmony of the ancient type. In a union of the beautiful and the ugly, it is always the beautiful which triumphs in the end. Nature, by a Divine law, tends constantly towards the best, tends ceaselessly towards perfection. Besides the Mediterranean type, there exists a Northern type, to which many Frenchwomen, as well as the women of the Germanic and Slavic races, belong. In this type the hips are strongly developed and the shoulders are narrower; it is this structure that you observe, for example, in the nymphs of Jean Goujon, in the Venus of the Judgment of Paris by Watteau, and in the Diana by Houdon. In this type, too, the chest is generally high, while in the antique and Mediterranean types the thorax is, on the contrary, straight. To tell the truth, every human type, every race, has its beauty. The thing is to discover it. I have drawn with infinite pleasure the little Cambodian dancers who lately came to Paris with their sovereign. The fine, small gestures of their graceful limbs had a strange and marvellous beauty.
” I have made studies of the Japanese actress Hanako. Her muscles stand out as prominently as those of a fox-terrier’; her sinews are so developed that the joints to which they are attached have a thickness equal to the members themselves. She is so strong that she can rest as long as she pleases on one leg, the other raised at right angles in front of her. She looks as if rooted in the ground, like a tree. Her anatomy is quite different from that of a European, but, nevertheless, very beautiful in its singular power.”
An instant later, returning to the idea which is so dear to him, he said: ” In short, Beauty is everywhere. It is not she that is lacking to our eye, but our eyes which fail to perceive her. Beauty is character and expression. Well, there is nothing in nature which has more character than the human body. In its strength and its grace it evokes the most varied images. One moment it resembles a flower: the bending torso is the stalk; the breasts, the head, and the splendor of the hair answer to the blossoming of the corolla. The next moment it recalls the pliant creeper, or the proud and upright sapling. ` In seeing you,’ says Ulysses to Nausicaa, ‘ I seem to see a certain palm-tree which at Delos, near the altar of Apollo, rose from earth to heaven in a single shoot.’ Again, the human body bent backwards is like a spring, like a beautiful bow upon which Eros adjusts his invisible arrows. At another time it is an urn. I have often asked a model to sit on the ground with her back to me, her arms and legs gathered in front of her. In this position the back, which tapers to the waist and swells at the hips, appears like a vase of exquisite outline.
” The human body is, above all, the mirror of the soul, and from the soul comes its greatest beauty.
“Chair de la femme, argile ideale, o merveille, O penetration sublime de l’esprit Dans le limon que l’Etre ineffable petrit. Matiere oh Fame brille a travers son suaire. Boue oh l’on voit les doigts du divine statuaire. Fange auguste appelant les baisers et le coeur. Si sainte qu’en ne sait, tant l’amour est vainqueur Tant l’ame est, vers ce lit mysterieux, poussee. Si cette volupte n’est pas une pensee. Et qu’on ne pent, a l’heure oh les sens sont en feu. Etreindre la Beaute sans croire embrasser Dieu !
” Yes, Victor Hugo understood! What we adore in the human body more even than its beautiful form is the inner flame which seems to shine from within and to illumine it.”