Sartorial Genius: How Rodin Dressed Down Balzac
In 1908, a young Edward Steichen photographed Auguste Rodin’s monument to Honoré de Balzac by moonlight. The ethereal solitude of the figure emerging from Steichen’s nocturnal shot caused Rodin to exclaim “Your photographs will make the world understand my Balzac.” The sculptor’s possessive response to Steichen’s work – “my Balzac” – reflected Rodin’s commitment to memorialising the writer in sculptural form. Although their lives only overlapped by a decade, the commission to create a work honouring Balzac would absorb Rodin for almost a decade.
Apprehending the writer’s character, as well as his physical form, was vital to Rodin’s approach to Balzac’s monument, commissioned by the Société des Gens de Lettres in 1891. This process of truly understanding the writer – who is now commonly regarded as one of the founders of Realism in European literature – saw Rodin complete seven intensive years of research and work between 1891-1898. Embodying Balzac’s eccentric nature (the writer’s daily schedule comprised of sleeping from 6pm until midnight, and furiously writing from 1am until well after sunrise), Rodin read biographies, visited the writer’s hometown of Touraine, and even went so far as to have a set of clothes made for him by Balzac’s tailor. Rodin oscillated between a nude depiction of the writer, and one which was clothed: two images which literary critic Naomi Schor believes represent the dichotomy of masculine genius in the nineteenth century.
The sartorial aspect of the sculpture became central to its narrative over time. Since Balzac would typically work at night, he would wear a dressing gown to write and it was this that Rodin finally settled on as the adornment to Balzac’s towering figure. The Musée Rodin holds a plaster study for the dressing gown of Balzac: anxious to be accurate, Rodin had the unusual item supplied by Balzac’s tailor. This cast was one of more than forty studies which Rodin made for the commission in clay, wax, plaster and bronze. For a monument to a writer who was able to paint his characters as both flawed and human, depiction in such an unusual piece of clothing was as exposing as it was concealing. The form of Balzac’s body has led some commentators to believe that the writer is pleasuring himself beneath the gown, an idea alluded to when Rodin spoke of the absurd reasoning that, by convention, “a statue in a public place must represent a great man in a theatrical attitude that will cause him to be admired by posterity.” Instead, Rodin insisted, “I had to show Balzac in his study, breathless, hair in disorder, eyes lost in a dream…”
Alphonse Eugène Druet’s photographs of Balzac draw attention to the sartorial element of the work and demonstrate a significant development in Rodin’s attitude towards photography during the long fin-de-siècle. Although Druet’s work stands to document the sculpture, the images move past the rigorous, clinical attitude employed by photographer Gaudenzio Marconi in images of The Age of Bronze, taken two decades earlier. In that case, the prerogative had been evidence for the defence of Rodin’s artistic integrity, accused of life-casting the sculpture’s model after The Age of Bronze was submitted to the Paris Salon of 1877. Following their meeting in 1896, it was Druet who first introduced Rodin to the concept of fine-art photography. Working in harmony, the pair produced images of Rodin’s Balzac: light befalling the monument’s gown provoking the sense that the work could as easily be hewn marble as cold plaster.
Nevertheless, the sculpture did, in fact, remain in plaster during Rodin’s lifetime. The submitted cast was returned to the artist’s home in Meudon after it was rejected by the Société des Gens de Lettres in May 1898. Balzac is now considered one of the sculptor’s great masterpieces, reflecting Rodin’s unique investment in the work. Photographs such as Druet’s offer testament to the artist’s visionary approach to sculptural portraiture: an approach which was censored by way of the stifled commission during his lifetime. On July 2, 1939, 22 years after the sculptor’s death, the model was finally cast in bronze for the first time and placed on the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the intersection with Boulevard Raspail.