Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)

Painting was not the only art process affected by the Impressionist style. Sculpture also saw a change. Auguste Rodin’s extraordinary skill dominated sculpture during this time. His sculptural technique was similar to Impressionist painting techniques. He pushed, pulled, and jabbed the clay or wax to create forms just as painters applied dots and dashes to their paintings. Rodin created the same spontaneous feeling, the capturing of a fleeting moment in his sculptures. His figures are not idealized like classical statues but are of ordinary men and women in special moments. His statues show strong emotions—happiness, sadness, love, and pain. He altered traditional poses to create original, highly emotional sculptures.

The Burghers of Calais
The Burghers of Calais

Rodin was born in Paris to a poor family, hated school, and dropped out at the age of 13. He went to a trade school and learned to create decorative sculptures, mostly ornamental ironwork for buildings. After working in decorative art studios, he would work on his own sculptures. He was inspired by Michaelangelo’s sculptures, which he saw on a trip to Italy. He gained acceptance by art critics with a life-size figure sculpture and received a commission for a set of sculptural doors for a decorative arts museum. The museum was never built, but Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for 40 years. In the meantime, he received more commissions. One of his most famous commissions was The Burghers of Calais. It commemorated an event that took place in the town of Calais. The sculpture memorializes the six men who gave their lives in exchange for the town’s protection by the invading English army during the Hundred Years’ War. It was unlike any public memorial ever created before. The group of figures are not symmetrically balanced, and the figures are of ordinary men. The surface of this sculpture is uneven with rough textures, which creates dramatic shadows.

While continuing to work on The Gates of Hell, based on Dante’s Inferno, Rodin was inspired to create his most famous sculpture, The Thinker. The sculpture was meant to be part of the The Gates of Hell, a man contemplating the vision of hell below. The figure is modeled in an Impressionist style, lacking the fine details of classical sculptures. More important is the man’s emotional state as he thinks about the visions of hell. Although seated, his body has a twist to it. His right arm propped on his left knee with the hand curled into a fist beneath his chin. The uneven textures on the surface create a play between light and shadow. We can make out the musculature of the man, but the figure is not idealized like classical sculptures. This man could be anyone.


Rodin created several versions of The Thinker, altering their size from the initial 28 inches high to an even smaller version at only 14 3/4 inches, then to a monumental size of 79 inches. Rodin used the sculptural process of casting. A mold was created from a wax model. Hot metal was poured into the mold, melting the wax. When cool, the mold was opened to reveal the finished sculpture. Multiple castings can be made from the same image. One such casting is here in Louisville at the University of Louisville (U of L) Law building.

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