Rodin Museum: The Reality of One Man's Dream
Tucked away in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park neighborhood, far away from his native homeland of France, is one of the world’s largest collections of bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Long considered the founder of modern sculpture impressionism, The Rodin Museum offers a rare glimpse into several important works that represent all stages of the artist’s career.
Born 1840 in Paris to a working-class family, Rodin spent time throughout France and Italy studying Michelangelo, Donatello and others. From 1879 to 1882, he worked at a porcelain factory in Sevres. Commissioned by a Parisian organization of writers to do a monument honoring the writer Balzac, he did more than 50 different studies. But his model for the final sculpture drew criticism as being incomplete. Refusing to make required changes, he repaid the organization, had the sculpture moved to his own garden and gave up public commissions. After The World's Fair, he established some wealthy clients and his artwork flourished. Deciding to leave the city for the countryside, he moved to Meudon, where he died in 1917.
In 1876, Rodin had sent eight sculptures to the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park celebrating 100 years of American independence. He received no medals or mention in the press so his debut was disappointing. He never knew Philadelphia would one day honor the single largest collection of his work outside of Paris. He willed his estate to the French government giving permission to make casts.
The Rodin Museum was the vision of Jules Mastbaum, born in 1876. After graduating from Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, he began dabbling in real estate. The emerging motion picture industry captured his imagination and he opened a theater. By the 1920s, he was the largest operator of movie theaters in the U.S. While visiting a shop in Paris around 1923, he purchased a small bronze sculpture, The Hand, by Rodin and wanted to discover more about the artist.
Fascinated by Rodin's prolific creations, Mastbaum's idea was to acquaint people with all the stages of the Frenchman's career. He dreamed of opening a museum dedicated to fully representing Rodin's achievements from an intimate scale to great monuments. Some of these early sculptures from France were already bronze. Others, he had bronzed for himself.
Mastbaum was given six casts by the French government for helping rehabilitate Rodin's home and studio. He bought more from Paris Musee Rodin and by 1926 he had acquired much of their collection, adding historical pieces like Eternal Springtime, which Rodin had presented to Robert Louis Stevenson in 1885. Another was a rare cast of The Athlete, a gift given to Samuel Stanton White III, who had served as the model.
When his proposal to erect and maintain the Rodin Museum was accepted in 1926, Mastbaum looked for somewhere to house the sculptures. He sought out landscape architect Greber of Paris who conceived the overall design and French professor of architecture, Cret, for the building. But Mastbaum died unexpectedly before construction was completed. His widow saw that his dream was realized by having the museum finished and transferring the Rodin collection to the City of Philadelphia.
Originally opened to the public in 1929, the beaux-art architecture and formal French garden were wonderfully unique. There were more than 390,000 visitors the first year, including Claudel, the French Ambassador to the U.S. Eventually, however, several large outdoor sculptures had to be brought indoors to protect them from the elements. The original plantings became overgrown.
Buildings, galleries and grounds have now been renovated to comply with the original vision. The garden has undergone a three-year effort supported by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which oversees the museum), the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, the City of Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation and generous public and private funders. The project follows the atmosphere of the plans by Cret and Greber.
The museum reopened with an inaugural installation dedicated to The Gates of Hell, a large bronze project that consumed Rodin for almost four decades but was unfinished in his lifetime. The doors of the piece depict the lost souls of Dante's "Inferno" sinking into Hell.
“The Gates of Hell is one of our five most popular pieces. The towering bronze doors are located at the building's portico,” says Museum Curator, Jennifer Thompson. “Another favorite sculpture is Rodin's commissioned monument for the bronze figure group The Burghers of Calais. It commemorates six merchants of Calais who offered themselves as hostages to Edward III after he besieged the city for almost a year in 1347." Erected in 1895, It has been restored and moved outside the museum where the beautifully landscaped garden and waterway furnish peaceful, serene moments to sit and reflect on the art.
The building is like entering a special world. Visitors can see the various stages of Rodin's development. The rooms are not large, yet allow viewing from all angles. The signage is well detailed. The Northwest Gallery Series contains the studies of Balzac. The life size piece from Rodin's home was not bronzed until 1939. The museum has been returned to its 1929 splendor.
According to Thompson, "We have more than 80 bronze works. We do lend out pieces to other exhibitions and institutions. These are requested and have been deemed safe to travel by our conservation department. The length of the loan is on a case-by-case basis."
Besides large and medium versions of the world-famous The Thinker, (first seen as an independent work in 1883) are other displays. Adam and The Shade are located within the arches of Meudon Gate. The Age of Bronze (Rodin's breakthrough sculpture) and Eve have returned to the niche occupied on either side of the museum's portico overlooking the reflecting pool for the first time since 1963 due to modern preservation techniques. And, Three Shades has been generously lent by Iris and B. Gerald Cantor.
"Since bronze casting is a complex industrial process, it is not something we can do reasonably at the museum,” says Thompson. “In the future we hope to develop a short video that describes it. Modern sandcasting is quite different than that done in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so finding a local outfit to film is harder than it might seem! Several times a year, curators and conservators at the museum give gallery talks; some describe treatment of bronze sculptures and the casting process.
The next gallery talk will take place on Oct. 16 and 18, and will include a talk by Thompson, covering Rodin's marble, bronze and plaster materials. The museum also holds daily tours for visitors at 1:30, every day except when closed on Tuesdays.
Also in this Issue:
- Rodin Museum: The Reality of One Man's Dream
- Earthy Persuasions in Copper: Lost Marbles Jewelry
- Brass Pocket Sculpture
- Trudi Gilliam: Mixed-Media Sculptures That Reflect Natural And Timeless Beauty
- Sotheby's Offered Magnificent Ritual Bronzes from the Collection of Julius Eberhardt