Rodin’s Monument to Balzac

‘I sought in the Balzac...’ wrote the artist, ‘to represent in sculpture that which was not photographic... to imitate not only form but also life itself’. By Michael Greenhalgh.

Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, commissioned by the Societé des Gens de Lettres in July 1891, but rejected by that society when displayed at the Salon of 1898, is surely the most extraordinary sculpture of the nineteenth century.

It is remarkably different from all the monumental sculpture that preceded it and might, indeed, be said to be the last flowering and one of the greatest triumphs of figurative art. It is, above all Rodin’s other works, the one that appeals to the modern imagination, no doubt because the upheavals in the field of sculpture since the beginning of our century - for which Rodin was partly responsible - have enabled us to appreciate its primitive power.

But its first appearance in 1898 was greeted by the great majority of both public and art critics with derision.

Olivier Merson, a Professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, wrote:

...every person of common sense can easily recognize in this heap of plaster, built up by kicks and punches, a monument of un-reason or impotence ...or the effrontery, quite simply, of a master at practical jokes...’

What was it about the Balzac that occasioned such violence of expression, such hatred and scorn? To answer that question we must turn from the work itself to consider the nineteenth-century tradition of sculpture, and the previous important works of Rodin himself, for it is only by setting this startlingly new work in its context that the reasons for the furore can be understood.

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