Guide To Paris' Beautifully Curated Rodin Museum
Updated: May 26
"To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth." -- Auguste Rodin
Here's my guide to visiting the spectacular Rodin Museum in Paris. Opened in 1919, the Rodin Museum is a shrine to the complex life and oeuvre of one of France's most revered artists, Auguste Rodin. The Rodin Museum is one of the best small museums in Paris.
Rodin is considered the father of modern sculpture. He was absurdly talented, his works a torrent of expressive power. Rodin's titular museum is housed in the 18th century Hotel Biron, a romantic mansion where Rodin created some of his greatest works.
The museum's permanent collection includes many iconic Rodin sculptures and works from Rodin's brilliant student Camille Claudel. The Rodin Museum also has a vast and verdant sculpture garden. In it, Rodin hand placed some of his favorite and most iconic sculptures. It's a pleasure to stroll through and dream.
August Rodin, a Short Biography
Rodin was born in 1840 in Paris, a child of the working class. He showed an early talent for sculpting, saying that modeling clay was "like going to heaven." But he was dreamy and a poor student. He failed the entrance examination for Paris' École des Beaux-Arts three times. Rodin was forced to work in decorative art shops to make ends meet.
In 1866, he met his lifelong companion, Rose Beuret. She was one of his first models. They had a son together.
But that didn't stop Rodin from having short term and long term affairs with myriad models. But he never left Beuret, perhaps out of guilt, duty, or some other unnamable force that gave him lead feet.
In 1875, Rodin traveled to Italy. There, he found his true source of inspiration: Michelangelo. Rodin believed Michelangelo was a "great magician." Michelangelo set him afire.
Like Michelangelo, Rodin wanted to convey the raw emotion and physicality of a subject, not just an idealized or sanitized view. He wanted to explore the natural world and capture the ugly inner truths of the human psyche.
Unfortunately, Rodin's impressionistic "mirror of the soul" approach wasn't a popular aesthetic at the time. It created disquiet in the conservative Salon. The critics wanted polished depictions of mythological figures, not regular men who looked half finished or in emotional agony.
Rodin's first breakthrough came in 1877 with the exhibition of The Age of Bronze at the Paris Salon (initially titled The Vanquished). It's a life size statue of a man in a moment of awakening. The sculpture was technically perfect and remarkably naturalistic. So perfect that it sparked a critical scandal. Rodin was publicly accused of casting the statue from an actual model or corpse.
Rodin flew into a fury at the accusations of fraud. But all publicity is good publicity, it seems. The scandal brought Rodin out of obscurity and into the limelight.
Three years later, the French state purchased a bronze model of the same statue. Shortly thereafter, at age 40, Rodin received his first public commission. He was tapped to create a pair of bronze doors for a new decorative arts museum, a piece later titled The Gates of Hell.
In 1884, Rodin hired Camille Claudel, then 19, to be his studio assistant. In 1886, Claudel and Rodin began a torrid affair. Their romantic and collaborative relationship would endure, on and off, until 1898.
For Rodin, this marked an incredibly prolific period, when his sculpture grew more erotic and more acclaimed. For Claudel, the relationship was both a blessing and a curse. She had opportunities to exhibit her work, but was often blithely dismissed as merely "Rodin's student."
But Claudel was a precociously talented genius and rebel. Rodin gave her the studio jobs that required the most skill, like creating the hands and feet for The Burghers of Calais and The Gates of Hell. Rodin was desperately in love with Claudel, who he described as his "ferocious friend." With Claudel, unlike Beuret, he experienced "great joy" and “the happiness of always being understood."
But at age 28, Claudel had waited long enough. In 1893, she issued an ultimatum to a stonewalling Rodin. Reluctantly, he refused to abandon the faithful Beuret. Claudel broke off the affair and quit working for Rodin.
Claudel had some limited success. But slowly descended into the grip of depression, mental illness, and alcoholism. Eventually, her family stashed her in an insane asylum for the rest of her life. You can read her full story here.
By 1899, Rodin had a large studio. But he was stubborn, and his work continued to be a source of controversy. To the critic's horror, his expressionistic Burghers of Calais showed dejected victims instead of exultant heroes. His Balzac, depicted in a "sack," was rejected and Rodin kept the sculpture for himself.
In 1900, Rodin had an entire pavilion at the Paris Universal Exposition devoted to his work. A triumph indeed, and a turning point. In 1908, Rodin moved into then-dilapitated Hotel Biron, near Les Invalides. He used it as a studio until his death.
Rodin then began an 7 year affair with the Marquis Claire de Choiseul (an American, despite the French name). She promoted his work tirelessly, as an agent almost. But she was a tyrannical gatekeeper to Rodin. His friends dubbed her the "Influenza." The affair ended poorly, with Choiseul being accused of stealing a box of drawings.
Before Rodin's death, he bequeathed his work to the state of France -- on the condition that France create a museum in the Hotel Biron. Rodin died in 1917. His radical sculptures left a massive legacy. Bucking academic strictures, Rodin paved the way for more conceptual contemporary sculpture.
Highlights of the Rodin Museum's Permanent Collection
Opened in 1919, the Rodin Museum is perhaps my favorite of Paris' small museums. The permanent collection includes over 6,000 sculptures in bronze, marble, plaster, wax, and other materials.
The finished sculptures in marble and bronze are at Hotel Biron in central Paris. The plasters are housed at the museum's secondary site in Meudon, a day trip from Paris.
The Hotel Biron houses Rodin's most treasured works, including The Kiss, The Thinker, Fugit Amor, Thought, and sculptures of the celebrated French writer Honoré de Balzac. There are also 20 important works from Claudel. You'll also see sketches, paintings, and photographs that Rodin used for creating his models, or maquettes.
Most Famous Sculptures at Paris' Rodin Museum
If you're wondering what to see in the Rodin Museum, here's my list of Rodin's best pieces.
1. The Kiss
The Kiss is perhaps Rodin's most beloved statue, with the universal and relatable theme of sexual infatuation. It was the first Rodin sculpture the public embraced, despite the then-unprecedented depiction of nudity on such a massive scale.
Rodin developed the The Kiss in plaster and terracotta, before creating a marble version for the French government in 1888. I think the marble version is the most sublime. By 1917, over 300 casts were made.
The Kiss is supposed to represent the illicit passion of Paolo and Francesca, two doomed adulterers in Dante's Divine Comedy. But it should come as no surprise that Claudel was an inspiration. It's one of the happiest and most romantic of Rodin's sculptures.
Rodin didn't love it though. He didn't even name it; the public did. Rodin described The Kiss as a "large knick-knack following the usual formula." He insisted that the sculpture be exhibited with the much more radical Balzac sculpture, a piece for which Rodin was ridiculed.
2. Fugitive Love
What a beautiful composition. This sculpture, Fugit Amor or Fugitive Love, is one of Rodin's most evocative. Although one wonders if a rock is the best place for an amorous encounter.
It's another depiction of those infamous lovers, Paolo and Francesca. In fact, this more tempestuous sculpture replaced The Kiss on the Gates of Hell. Fugit Amor appears twice on the right portal. Like The Kiss, the sculpture may have its roots in the torrid Rodin-Claudel affair.
The two bodies strain in one flowing movement, appearing arrested in motion. Francesa's position is especially strenuous.
Is she trying to escape or is she carrying the man away on her back? Paolo is depicted with a wide mouth and closed eyes, mimicking a Bernini sculpture in Rome.
3. Bust of Victor Hugo
The Rodin Museum has busts in bronze and marble of the famed novelist, Victor Hugo. Hugo refused to pose for Rodin in the traditional way. He told Rodin to come to a dinner party and observe him there. But even that was too much for Hugo, who intensely disliked being observed and sketched. Rodin largely had to make sketches from memory.
Rodin gifted a bronze bust to Hugo in 1883, two years before Hugo died. The Rodin Museum later acquired the bust from Marguerite Hugo, Hugo's great-granddaughter, in 1928.
There's another Hugo bust by Rodin in the Victor Hugo Museum on Place des Vosges in the Marais. And another 1890 sculpture in the Rodin Museum Garden, showing Hugo among the rocks of his beloved Guernsey.
5. Fall of Illusion: Sister of Icarus
The Fall of Illusion shows a winged figure dropped from heaven. According to Greek mythology, Icarus used the wings designed by his father to escape imprisonment. But he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on his wings and plummeting to earth.
Rodin was fascinated by the romantic myth and sculpted several versions of it. Does it evoke the ill-advised vanity of humans? Or the idealism of attempting an impossible task?
6. Camille Claudel: Thought and Mask
I love the Thought bust of Camille Claudel. Rodin made several busts of his young pupil-lover. This one's a contemplative portrait of Claudel, which explores the power of her intellect. Her face is veiled with a bonnet and in shadow.
Equally compelling is Rodin's Mask of Camille Claudel. She's shown unfinished, with scar-like seam lines from different pieces of the mold. A massive left hand looms ominously above her head, taken from one of The Burghers of Calais. Her wide eyes and vacant look exudes a feeling of distress.
7. Eternal Springtime
Rodin created Eternal Springtime during a period of frenetic activity while working on The Gates of Hell. The graceful piece never appeared on the portal. Like The Kiss, of which it is a variant, the subject evokes a lovers' euphoria, inconsistent with Gates' theme of tragedy.
With its rhythmic movement, Eternal Springtime is more reminiscent of 18th century decorative sculpture. It was very successful and was cast many times in bronze and marble.
The female figure was based on Torso of Adèle, an earlier Rodin work placed on the tympanum (the semi-circle arch over the entrance) on The Gates of Hell.
8. Camille Claudel Room
Before his death, Rodin set aside a room for Claudel in his proposed museum in the Hotel Biron. The Rodin Museum opened in 1919, two years after Rodin’s death, right on schedule. But there was no Camille Claudel room for decades.
In 1952, after repeated requests, Claudel’s brother Paul Claudel finally donated four major works by Claudel to the museum: Vertumnus and Pomona and two versions of both The Age of Maturity and Clotho. The collection was gradually increased by donations and acquisitions.
Currently, the Rodin Museum has 20 Claudel pieces in total. The Camille Claudel Room was among the rooms renovated by the museum in 2015 and is quite stunning. Claudel also has her own museum in Nogent-sur-Seine, an easy day trip from Paris.
9. The Sculpture Garden at the Rodin Museum
Admission to the lush sculpture garden is an extra 4 euros. But on a sunny day, or any day really, it's well worth it. The garden features monumental works in bronze by Rodin and marble busts and statues dating to Roman antiquity. Rodin himself collected ancient sculptures.
10. The Thinker
In addition to The Kiss, The Thinker is Rodin's other most well known sculpture. Over 50 casts were made of the tense sculpture, making its presence known world wide.
The seated figure is a contemplative, melancholy man. The sculpture is highly influenced by Michelangelo, but also seems modern. Rodin said "my Thinker thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils, and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”
The Thinker also appears near the top of the Gates of Hell. He seems doubtful about his place in life, brooding over the damned souls. Unlike the Age of Bronze, The Thinker isn't strictly beautiful. Rodin didn't care about admiration, and neither do his subjects.
11. The Burghers of Calais
The Burghers of Calais is an emotionally charged piece. It's a stunning, and then revolutionary, monument. It tells a romantic story from the siege of Calais in 1347, during the Hundred Years War.
Six leading citizens, the burghers, offered to die if the rest of their town were allowed to survive. King Edward III's wife, Queen Phillippa, heard the tale and persuaded her husband to spare them all.
In 1885, the City of Calais commissioned Rodin to create a sculpture commemorating the burghers' heroism. But, as usual, Rodin chose the extraordinary rather than the ordinary. He depicted the martyrs in a moment of angst, after their courageous sacrifice and when the threat of death was imminent.
The six figures, whom seem almost unaware of each others existence, appear lonely and anguished. Malnourished even. They have slumped shoulders and enlarged hands and feet. Displayed at street level, the audience can almost experience their pathos.
The Burghers met with intense criticism. It was more common to depict a single God-like hero, high on a pedestal, in a moment of victory. Calais didn't like the grim scene either.
Rodin gave the city a raised pedestal for display, but created a second version for himself. Now, The Burghers is considered a masterpiece of surging emotion in stone, one that altered the direction of sculptural art.
12. The Gates of Hells
The Gates of Hell was commissioned for a museum that never materialized. It's a monumental sculptural ensemble, over 6 meters high. Rodin worked on it compulsively for 20 years, but never finished it to his satisfaction. Though depicted in a modern way, it reveal Rodin's love of the Gothic.
Rodin sought to create something akin to Ghiberti's famous Renaissance bronze doors on the Florence Cathedral. The piece was originally inspired by Dante's Inferno. You'll find Paolo and Francesca there, but in a very different rendering than The Kiss, befitting the sculpture's frenzied intensity.
The Gates of Hell isn't really about Dante's divine doom though. It's more of a commentary on secular despair, on dislocation and disruption. In the Gates, there's no traditional sense of space.
The melee of tortured figures protrude from the bronze skin. They're shown in twisted chaotic positions, writhing in agony. You'll find smaller versions of The Thinker and The Three Shades on the bronze doors. The Gates of Hell was only cast from the plaster model 8 years after Rodin's death.
13. Monument to Balzac
When Rodin unveiled his monument to the famed French author Honoré de Balzac in 1898, the critics slammed it. They were rattled, expecting a majestic work. They variously denounced the challenging sculpture as a “slap in the face,” a "stupid monstrosity," and a "toad in a sac."
Like Rodin’s other public sculptures, Balzac was viewed as a shocking departure from the expected way to pay homage to famous figures. The commission was rudely cancelled and Rodin's fee withheld, to his extreme dismay.
Five years of work with no reward, when Rodin was on the verge of global fame. Balzac was not cast in bronze until 1939.
Balzac had been dead for 40 years when Rodin began work on the sculpture. He was a pot bellied, hyperactive man with flowing long hair and an indomitable will, akin to his friend Victor Hugo. Rodin's Balzac is inchoate and somewhat melancholic, clad in a fluid monk-like robe. Balzac actually wore such an outfit while writing.
With his head tipped up, the writer of Realism appears to stare and assess approaching visitors. The sculpture exudes the power of the creator. But also is a tad grandiose and overbearing, to be honest, though you can appreciate what Rodin was striving for in its rendering.
One thinks that Balzac himself would've approved of Rodin's work. After all, Balzac said "I can scarcely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy." You can find another version of Rodin's Balzac on Boulevard Raspail in Paris.
14. The Three Shades
The Three Shades is Rodin's remix of his Adam sculpture. It's a triple representation of the muscular Adam rotated into different positions. The exaggerations -- heads falling at odd angles, unnaturally long and overstretched arms -- gives the sculpture intensity and expressive force.
Another version of The Three Shades stands atop the lintel of The Gates of Hell. Their repeating downward gesture of the arms and heads seems to convey the inevitability of date. The Shades direct the viewer's gaze to the drama of sin and damnation unfolding below. They signify Dante's warning: "Abandon every hope, ye who enters here."
Virtual Visit to the Rodin Museum
The Rodin Museum has added some online audio tours. You can take a virtual tour of his famous sculpture The Thinker, read stories about Rodin's life, and view and learn about 40 of the figures in his masterpiece The Gates of Hell. You can also explore over 300 Rodin sculptures on Google Arts & Culture.
Practical Information for Visiting the Rodin Museum:
Address: 79, rue de Varenne, 7th arrondissement
Phone: +33(0)1 44 18 61 10
Metro: Varenne (line 13), Invalides (line 8 or 13); RER: Invalides (line C); Bus: 69, 82, 87, 92
Entry fee: 12 euros, the sculpture garden is 4 euros extra
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