Rodin as I knew him

Anthony M. Ludovici

The Listener 37, 1947, pp. 97–98, 113

- p. 97 -
I joined Rodin's household at the Villa des Brillants, Meudon, Val Fleury, in June 1906. He was then sixty-five, at the height of his fame, and making a great deal of money. The curators of all the art galleries of the world were pressing him to immortalise their features, and the universities were showering honorary degrees upon him. He had recently made busts of Lord Howard de Walden and Bernard Shaw; moulders and plasterers, assistant sculptors, and Rudie the bronze founder, were constantly at work on his productions and his home was a hive of industry.
        During the years I lived with Rodin I had the opportunity, not only of watching his daily behaviour, but also of seeing him at work and having his opinion on sculpture. In view of his reputation and the material ease which it brought him, the extreme simplicity of his life at Meudon and the austerity of his house appointments and furniture were surprising. No easy chairs were to be seen, no carpets covered the floors, and but for a few masterpieces by Sargent, Falguière and Blanche the walls were bare.
        His daily routine did not vary very much. In the late spring and summer he was generally up by half-past six, and would stroll about the large garden with his dogs, Cap and Thérèse. During my time he bought a horse and carriage, and it was at this early hour that he took his drives into the surrounding country with Madame Rodin. They breakfasted together on bread and milk, or sour milk, at half-past seven, and at eight o'clock sharp Rodin was in his cabinet de travail. There he read and discussed his correspondence and had his hair and beard dressed by the local barber. Rodin was always laconic and would sketch his replies in the barest outline. The moment the little barber cried, "Voilà monsieur, c'est fini!", he would spring to his feet and, from the door already half-opened, would deal rapidly with the letters still requiring attention. If he had to catch a train to Paris, he did not even wait to do this, and those letters were held over till the evening. During the summer of 1906, he usually remained at Meudon during the morning, engaged on his monument to Victor Hugo or on portrait busts.

A bronze bust of Clemenceau by Rodin, and (below) his drawing "The Dancer"
Illustrations from "Rodin" (Phaidon Press)

        It was at his déjeuner that one enjoyed Rodin's conversation. If, as often happened, distinguished guests were present, the talk would be brilliant. For Rodin was a good talker, and always trenchant and original in his sallies. If we were alone, Rodin would either discuss his work and reveal the secrets of his methods, or else would question me about England, English notabilities, the peerage, the Royal Family, or even English cooking. Sometimes, owing to his ignorance of English and the pronunciation of English names, these interrogations would end badly. He must have been told again and again the names of the people he used to discuss, but I soon discovered that he was more than slightly deaf, although he never admitted it. This made him trust more to his eye than his ear in pronouncing English names. And anyone with knowledge of French phonetics can imagine the result! To have the sounds "Bernarre Shuv" suddenly hurled at one and be expected to react intelligently was bad enough. But on one occasion things were far more serious. It was before I had had time to discover the work Rodin had been engaged upon before my arrival. Suddenly I found myself asked to tell him about a person called "Ovardevaldant". I begged him kindly to repeat the name, but only stared blankly when it came out in exactly the same way. I did not even know the sex of the creature named. Consternation seized me. "Mais voyons", Rodin exclaimed impatiently. "Vous n'allez pas me faire croire, jeune homme, que vous n'avez jamais entendu parler de Ovardevaldant?" Perhaps if I had been less anxious to please, I might have guessed. But with my eminent master growing every second more dumbfounded, and madame Rodin mutely imploring me not to upset him, my mind became a complete blank.
        "Ah, ça c'est trop fort!" cried Rodin, and shrugging his shoulders he gave me up as hopeless. Gradually, I at last elicited more details. "Ovardevaldant" was "un grand seigneur". He was "extrêmement aisé". In fact, he was "unlorre" — "Lorrovardevaldant!"
        At long last, I guessed, and amid profuse apologies assured Rodin that, of course, I had heard of Lord Howard de Walden. "A la bonheur enfin!" Rodin exclaimed, and we both looked as hot as if we had been wrestling.
        The usual routine was that, when lunch was over, Madame Rodin would put on Rodin's boots and he would catch the train to Paris, either to work on a portrait bust or else on some piece requiring a model. He would return home about half-past five or six; sign his letters; wander off with his dog Cap to some quiet corner of the garden; take, at about seven, a light supper of

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bread and milk, and go to bed at eight. Or, in seasons when dusk fell early, he might ask me to join him in the large studio with a pair of lighted candles, and there to walk in front of him very slowly round one of his sculptures whilst he closely examined the profiles. For the technical and aesthetic problems of his work were his constant preoccupation. He had to make a deliberate effort to talk about other matters, at least with intimates. To him artistic creation was a question of technical mastery. Like Coquelin aîné, he mistrusted moments of so-called "inspiration", with the exalted mood and passionately quivering nostrils of the romantic artist. "Inspired moments", he used to say, "by inducing a state akin to intoxication, may make the artist forget the principles on which the interpretation of his idea depends."
        Unlike the romantic artist who, after creating in a passion, returns in a sober moment to his work only to be surprised, Rodin knew that all he did in the for of exaggerated effects, subtle asymmetries, or the production of rough excrescences, on his figures or busts, which might suggest haste or fervour, were in reality deliberate. He viewed them as a scientist rather than as a dreamer.
        His principles were always lucid and precise. "Sculpture", he often said, "is an art of hollows and projections (de creux et de bosses). It is for the open air, and if it is not to look like cardboard it must vibrate as if with inner life."
        The technique of rendering this vibration of life within the natural form was the object of his untiring research, and his doctrines testify to his coolness as a scientific investigator of the problem. He never wearied of emphasising the radical difference between the product of nature and that of the sculptor's art — a difference which is the chief pitfall of sculpture. For nature works from within outwards. The natural object grows by a process of proliferation, a shouldering of its form into space. Sculpture, on the other hand, grows by peripheral manipulation — the converse of nature's way. A live man has cleft the air by an inner necessity. A sculpture of man comes into being by surface treatment, pressings and pinchings. Can a sculpture possibly be made to look as if it had grown from an inner necessity, like a natural form?
        Rodin knew that it could, if the proper technique could be found. The first step was to look at nature in a new way. This, he contended, consisted in seeing and feeling all the surfaces of a natural form, not as planes lying at right angles to the line of vision, but as terminal points of masses directed at the spectator, as the apices of thickness. "Look at every part of a living form", he would say, " as the extremity of a diameter directed at you, almost coming at you. If you cease to regard it as a surface in square measure you will have grasped my method of seeing when I am modelling. The artist who is able to feel and represent this feature of natural growth is hors concours."
        The rest would appear to follow. But the difficulties of the method in execution amounted to wresting a secret from life itself. Rodin was studious by nature, and was equipped for the task. To observe life sedulously was a pastime of which he never wearied. Robbed by his civilisation of daily familiarity with the nude, he filled his studios with models who wandered about naked under his scrutiny. They never actually posed. They moved about as they listed, only to be frozen into immobility by a word from him when an attitude called for closer study. When, therefore, we feel as if the vividness of Rodin's figures, their vitality, makes us catch our breath, we know we are contemplating sculptures in which the quiddity, so to speak, of life itself has been communicated to us, albeit in a lifeless material. No one can miss it.

Rodin in his garden at Meudon

        Rodin's study of movement, and how best to render it in a static object, led to another discovery. To seize the last coordination of muscles in a moving natural form is not to represent movement. The camera does that and the result is rigidity. Rodin circumvented the difficulty in this way. He avoided seizing one moment alone in progression. He rendered it by blending two states of progression together, just as human eyes blend two faintly different impressions of things and thus contrive to see distance and roundness. Even in his busts, this blending of the ultimate with the penultimate lends a bristling busyness to the expression which borders on sorcery or magic. The busts of Victor Hugo, of Clemenceau, and of Puvis de Chavannes are outstanding examples of it. All this was deliberate, but it reveals the importance of the part played by science in Rodin's masterpieces.
        Indeed, to watch him gather his tools together before starting to work was immediately to recognise how little he left to chance. Everything was there to ensure precision, including pairs of large and small calipers. When once he had started, he worked with great concentration and speed, so much so that frequently the sweat would pour down his face.
        I have seen a striking likeness produced in two sittings, but this was merely the beginning. He had yet to contrive all those effects which gave the illusion of life and pulsation. A pellet of clay here, another there. They seemed forgotten rather than deliberately applied. Gradually they combined to produce the semblance of life which is the magic of Rodin's work. At first all those roughnesses, all that riot of small muscles, are bewildering. People who look superficially cry, "Unfinished!" But stand at the correct distance, and they all blend into a chorus of animation and vitality. Far from being unfinished they are the consummation of detailed study. Well might Rodin have exclaimed with the sculptor Préault, "Je ne suis pas pour le fini mais pour l'infini".
        Some of Rodin's more observant sitters half guessed the truth. Rochefort was probably one of them. He gave this account of what he saw when the first rapid stages of the bust were over, and Rodin settled down to the more important work: "I go to Monsieur Rodin in the morning and with infinite pains he at last decides to place une toute petite boulette of clay somewhere on the face of my bust. I return in the afternoon, and with the same infinite pains Monsieur Rodin at last decides to remove that very same pellet. And so it goes on!" But we know the result!
        Sometimes Rodin worked with his fingers, as it were, hot from contact with nature. He would sit by the modelling stand on which his clay model was taking shape and make his sitter squat beside him, her face turned to the light. Then, with fingers repeatedly refreshed by contact with the living form, he would model and model till the clay acquired spirit. That is why the bronzes of his works are much more the real Rodin than the stone or marble replicas. The bronzes reproduce the sculpture as he left it; the marble and stone replicas were always, to my knowledge, chiselled by other hands. Rodin could and did carve the marble. He carved with a breadth and daring his assistants could not achieve. But such pieces are very rare and I never saw Rodin at work except as a modeller. Even so I had nothing to do with the technical side of his art. When he worked at Meudon, it was Madame Rodin who cleaned and took charge of his tools. She also swathed his clay models in the moist rags which kept them fresh between the sittings. She knew to a nicety how moist the rags should be. Indeed, she was happier in this than in her custody of the tools, for when one of these got lost or mislaid — a not infrequent occurrence — she had to face the wrath of her lord and master.
        Before I finish, I must say a word about Rodin's drawings. I took care to obtain his own account of the function they served, and so I feel qualified to state that there is much misunderstanding about their purpose. He would often sit in the garden at Meudon, producing his now famous pencil outlines, either from a human model or an animal. When, for instance, he bought a horse, I was asked to have it brought on to the lawn for him to draw, and I stood behind him to watch him

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at work And this is what I saw. With his eyes fixed on the model and never lifting his pencil from the paper, he would, in one stroke and without once glancing at the paper, draw the object in outline. Indeed, except for the fact that he was not blindfolded, he drew in exactly the same way as the players in the old drawing-room game of drawing a pig at one stroke without being able to see. And, just as the terminal line of the drawings of the pig usually finished some distance from its proper place, so in Rodin's drawings a leg or an arm would often appear four or five times its proper thickness if it happened to form the end of the single-stroke drawing. If you look at most of the drawings you will either see this discrepancy, or else, on closer scrutiny, find that it has been subsequently corrected.
        I was naturally intrigued by this method of drawing without once glancing at the paper or lifting the pencil from it. I asked Rodin to explain why he had adopted it. It struck me that if the drawings were always marred by inevitable and glaring inaccuracies, they could hardly serve as documentation for his sculptures. Of course, ignorant critics have repeatedly declared that they did serve as documentation for the modelling of his figures. But it is obvious that they could not have done so, for they are quite unreliable. At any rate, it was plain to me that they were not intended to be works of art. In fact, to treat them as such was a piece of transparent aesthetic snobbery.
        Rodin's reply to my question certainly bears this out. He understood that I was reasonably puzzled, and that what I had been witnessing called for some explanation. And this is what he said: "For my work of modelling I have to possess both a knowledge of the human form and also a deep feeling for every aspect of it. I have to incorporate the human form so completely as to acquire almost an instinct regarding its contours and the masses it presents to the eye. I must feel them at the ends of my fingers. Look! What is this drawing? I did it as a mass, not once shifting my eyes from the model. I try to see the figure as a mass, as volume. It is this voluminousness I try to grasp. That is why I wash a tint over the drawings. This helps me to ascertain how far I have grasped the movement as a mass. In this way I test to what extent my hands already feel what my eyes see."
        It was clear to me that Rodin's drawings were what scales are to the pianist. And, to my knowledge, he never rated them higher than that. But Whistler was, I believe, among the few of Rodin's contemporaries who had the independence and the artistic acumen to appreciate this fact. In his heart of hearts Rodin was in far deeper sympathy with those who took Whistler's view than with those who shamelessly extolled to his very face as little masterpieces these mere manu-visual exercises.
        Altogether I regard it as a great privilege to have lived, as I did, in the closest proximity to a man of Rodin's artistic stature. He had performed the difficult feat of remaining unspoilt by a success unparalleled in the art world of his generation. He was still the conscientious craftsman, humble in the presence of Nature and the achievements of his famous predecessors. The artist in him, with all the simple demands of a mere student's existence, was paramount until the end. In this way his character revealed only what his great lifework would lead us to expect. — Third Programme