Sealed with a kiss: The man who made The Thinker

One of the world's most famous sculptors found recognition in the UK long before he was fêted in his own land. As the Royal Academy prepares for a major exhibition, Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online

He was fêted by British high society and invited to its most glittering soirées. In fact, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was adored in London long before he found fame in his native France. Now, a century later, the British love affair with the artist famed for monumental works such as The Thinker and The Kiss is to be renewed thanks to a new exhibition in London.

The show opens at the Royal Academy later this month and will include 200 of the artist's most famous works. In a coup for the Academy which has made it the envy of its French counterparts, many of the exhibits have come from the Musée Rodin in Paris and the stores of its little-visited sister gallery at nearby Meudon - Rodin's home for the last 22 years of his life.

These museums rarely lend on such a scale. But their generosity will enable this exhibition to tell the story of how Britain embraced this obsessive, brilliant artist, a man of many mistresses and great passions.

Catherine Lampert, who curated the last exhibition on Rodin in Britain 20 years ago and has used the latest research in putting together this one, said: "Central to the exhibition will be an exploration of Rodin's relationship with Britain, where he established his name as a sculptor of international standing."

Rodin, a hoarder par excellence, kept every calling card, every letter from an autograph-hunter, and even the bills from his tailor. As well as these mounds of trivia is the art: 6,000 works and another 1,000 part-works (hands, arms, legs) in the Meudon store alone. The archive is so enormous that no one has ever trawled the lot.

What the documentation reveals is an extensive social network in Britain, established after his first visit in 1881 to see his friend the artist Alphonse Legros, a professor at the Slade art school who introduced Rodin to some of the most influential figures in London.

But the importance of Britain was not limited to those who championed his art. For an artist who loved the antique, the British Museum was a key source of inspiration. "He was fascinated by the British Museum and made lots of visits," Ms Lampert said.

Once Rodin acquired wealth, he began his own collections - ancient Greek and Roman antiquities, Japanese artefacts and medieval sculpture - and displayed them alongside his own art in the garden at Meudon.

He was not always rich. Rodin was born in humble circumstances in 1840, the son of a police department clerk. He attended La Petite Ecole, a government-run establishment which trained craftsmen. Discovering a talent for drawing, he tried the entrance exam for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the fine art establishment, three times without success.

Undaunted, he continued his education in the studios of other sculptors. It was a fortuitous decision. "If you went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts you were trained in the classical way. Instead, he was free to look for expression, which was unusual in France at the time," said Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, director general of the National Institute of the History of Art in Paris.

Fame did not come quickly. When he was 25, The Man with the Broken Nose was rejected by the Paris Salon, the all-important arbiter of taste at the time. It was eventually accepted a decade later when produced in marble. (It was, incidentally, a piece much collected in the UK.)

The Age of Bronze, his first major work, was produced only in 1877. And it was 1880, when Rodin was 40, before he received his first major commission to produce the gates to a museum of decorative art. The work was The Gates of Hell, a giant sculpture never cast in his lifetime but which incorporated smaller pieces that became famous when produced in their own right - notably, The Thinker and The Kiss. (The first Gates of Hell ever cast has been borrowed from Vienna and was installed in the Royal Academy courtyard on Saturday ready for the show.)

Rodin's first visit to the UK came a year later to visit Legros, whom he had met at La Petite Ecole. Through him, he met William Henley, an influential art magazine editor, Lord Leighton, the former president of the Royal Academy, and Constantine Ionides, a Greek businessman and collector. These influential friends provided the building blocks for Rodin's artistic success in Britain.

Later, when he had become one of the most celebrated artists of his day, he became a social catch, the name every high-society hostess desired as a guest.

Those who knew (and sometimes posed for) him included Lady Sackville, mother of Vita Sackville-West, and Dorothy Tennant, an artist herself who married Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer of "Dr Livingstone, I presume" fame. Male friends included the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, to whom he gave a sensuous work, Eternal Springtime, which scandalised the natives of Samoa where Stevenson made his home.

There were setbacks. In 1886, The Idyll of Ixelles was rejected by the Royal Academy - the very institution which is about to pay homage to his work today. Antoinette Le Normand-Romain explained: "The piece they refused was one of his more charming pieces. But political enemies of Lord Leighton didn't want more French sculpture. New sculpture was very much discussed and to refuse Rodin was a way of refusing new sculpture."

In 1903, after an absence during the 1890s, he was appointed president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Engravers in London and in 1907 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University.

A major exhibition of his work was on show in London when war broke out in 1914 and the artist then lent 18 of them to the Victoria and Albert Museum rather than risk transporting them home. He later converted the loan to a gift. Fourteen are being lent for the Royal Academy show.

It was an astonishingly generous donation, as Antoinette Le Normand-Romain made clear. "To my eyes, the donation to England has deprived the French state of very important sculptures."

The Crouching Woman in the V&A, was not, for example, represented in the Musée Rodin holdings at all. "But I'm glad that in London there are important and beautiful sculptures by Rodin. They are really beautiful pieces," she said.

They are certainly among the most impressive of his works to be found in Britain. Rather curiously, despite the British love affair with Rodin, British collectors were pretty stingy, Ms Lampert said, when compared with those of other countries. The British liked his busts, but not his blockbusters.

"With a few exceptions, the British were not his big clients. The Germans, and Carlsberg [the brewing dynasty collector] in Denmark and, towards the end of his life, the Americans, were."

The exceptions in Britain included Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, two spinster sisters in Wales who were great art lovers. "They collected some very fine works," Ms Lampert said.

The National Art Collection Fund gave the imposing sculpture The Burghers of Calais to the nation in 1913 and Manchester City Art Gallery bought a bust of Victor Hugo. Always keen for his work to be seen, Rodin not only asked a fair price but gave 500 francs to the Manchester purchase fund to boot.

Perhaps he enjoyed being appreciated. As Antoinette Le Normand-Romain said: "Rodin was very proud and pleased to be in favour in London. The ladies of the aristocracy were keen to invite Rodin for the weekend. He loved the ladies."

And it seems they loved him. The acclaim in Britain meant Rodin was frequently away from France and his long-suffering partner, Rose Meuret, a seamstress whom he had met when he was 24 and she 20. She was beautiful but no intellectual match and could scarcely read the letters he sent home.

He was routinely unfaithful with women including Gwen John, the artist and sister of Augustus John, and Camille Claudel, a capricious, highly strung student who was arguably the love of his life. He eventually gave her up after an eight-year affair for the sake of his work.

But he actually left Rose only once, taking up residence with an enchanting aristocrat, the Duchesse de Choiseul, at the Hotel Biron, a grand house in central Paris where he - and Matisse, by coincidence - had taken studios. Eventually, though, he returned to Rose and they married two weeks before her death in 1917. When Rodin died nine months later, they were united in a grave under a giant statue of The Thinker at Meudon.

Before his death, Rodin had already negotiated with the French state for the Hotel Biron to be turned into the Musée Rodin that exists today. To fund it, he agreed to give the government the rights to his works.

Although often cast in massive editions in his day, the French government has limited these to 12 per piece, which means there are no more Burghers of Calais to be had. However, Thinkers and Kisses can still be made aplenty because of the numerous different sizes in which he produced the original casts.

Meudon, too, was left to the state, but despite its close proximity to central Paris, it currently receives only a few thousand visitors each summer compared with nearly 600,000 who flock to the main museum. Perhaps that will change once the British public sees the 200 sculptures in the Royal Academy show.

Catherine Lampert hopes it will create a new generation of admirers. "He's the only sculptor of the late 19th century with any kind of powers of invention and new ideas," she said. "Rodin's an artist as great as Michelangelo. He is the greatest modern sculptor."

Rodin, sponsored by Ernst and Young, opens on 23 September and runs until 1 January 2007