Rodin Works: the Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell in Philadelphia, bronze In 1880, just after the State purchased 'The Age of Bronze' in plaster and bronze, Rodin, through his contacts with State Undersecretary Turquet, received a commission for a portal of the proposed Musée des Arts Décoratifs on the Cour des Comptes, ravaged in 1871. But the project failed and the Museum was never built. Instead, the Gare d‘Orsay and the Hôtel d‘Orsay opened their doors at this location in 1900, simultaneously with the Universal Exhibition. After the railway station was closed, the Musée d‘Orsay was inaugurated in this building. This Museum has kept a plaster reconstruction of 'The Gates of Hell' since 1986, when the great relief was set up on the place of destination, 106 years later.

The scenes presented at 'The Gates of Hell' were inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy of the begining of the 14th century, which had been a  popular subject for numerous painters and sculptors - William Blake, who illustrated Dante's tale in 1820, John Flaxman, Delacroix ('The Barque of Dante', 1822), Ingres, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux ('Ugolino', 1863) - and for writers like Chateubriand, Stendhal, Balzac and Hugo.

Although the Purgatorio and Paradiso parts of the Commedia should also be taken into account, most of Rodin's creation is dedicated to the Inferno. Dante, who is suffering from loss of faith, must descend to the nine circles of sin and punishment and there meet the Devil, before he can climb the Mountain of Purgatory and reach the Heavens of Paradise, where he - guided by his beloved Beatrice - appears before God. During his cathartic journey through the Inferno, Dante is led by the poet Virgil.

Rodin enriched the story with his own fantasy and visions from 'Les Fleurs du Mal' of 1857 by Charles Baudelaire. In these poems, Baudelaire had described man as haunted by passions, that both delight and torment him. Desire knows no limit, satisfaction remains refused: a romantic antagonism that will permeate most of Rodin's work till the end of the 19th century. In 1884, Rodin illustrated 'Les Fleurs du Mal' for Edition Gallimard.

In his 'Gates', the sculptor also added elements from Ovid's Metamorphoses, like the Centaurs in the tympanum, abducting a number struggling women. Ovid's work was quite popular with the Symbolists; his poems depict the decadence after the Golden Age, caused by the lower instincts of greed, violence and lust, not only acting in a female Eve - as propagated by Christianity - but also in the male half of mankind. Still, the damned women of 'The Gates' remain Rodin's preferred vehicle to demonstrate the threefold coalescence of sexual attractivity, sin and punishment. 'The Sirens', initially representing the three Furies whom Dante meets in Canto IX after crossing the river Styx, have lost their gruesome appearance and serpent-like hair; they are shown as the lovely maidens who once tried to allure the cunning Odysseus with their seductive songs. Instead of merely illustrating Dante's narration, Rodin took 'The Gates' as a starting point for his own imagination:

"There is no intention of classification, or method of subject, no scheme of illustration or intended moral purpose. I followed my imagination, my own sense of arrangement, movement and composition. It has been from the beginning, and will be to the end, simply and solely a matter of personal pleasure."

[Rodin in conversation with Truman Bartlett, 1887/8 ]

Rodin drawing inspired by DanteJust like he created his St. John in over-lifesize dimensions to repudiate the accusations of surmoulage raised in connection to the 'Age of Bronze', Rodin this time choose to design a great number of small figures:

"My idea was not to interprete Dante, although I was glad to use the Inferno as a starting point, because I wanted to do something with small-scale nude figures. I was accused of taking casts from life [...] to prove once and for all that I could model after nature as well as anyone, I resolved, in my naiveté, to make the sculptures on the door smaller than life-size."

[Rodin in conversation with Truman Bartlett, 1887/8, p.233, quoted by Grunfeld, Rodin - A biography, p. 182; Jarrassé, p. 60; Elsen, Rodin, MoMa 1963, p. 35 ]

Already in 1875, Rodin, who was probably familiar with the translation by Rivarol, had started dealing with Dante's work and had created a series of drawings, accentuated by thick dark lines. Although the artist later stated he had given up working after the drawings, Aida Audeh has demonstrated that Rodin's must have been so saturated with Dante's text, the well-known medieval illustrations and his own sketches that all later sculptural works must be seen in the light of this tradition and preparatory work.Rodin - Sketch for The Gates of Hell with 8 cassettesGhiberti - Gates of ParadiseArchitectural drawing, 1880

The first architectural drafts for 'The Gates' show a series of narrative scenes arranged in two sets of each four separate picture windows.  Rodin's initial idea was to structure the doors like 'The Gates of Paradise' of Lorenzo Ghiberti at the Baptisterium in Florence and tell the story in different plates, rhythmically arranged with a different focus of light.

Later, inspired by Michelangelo's ceiling of the 'Sistine Chapel', Rodin simplified this concept. As the figures populating 'The Gates' started to emerge from the background and gained more volume, Rodin abandoned the horizontal barriers between the sections; it seemed as if the individual scenes were now floating in a sea of fire. Whereas in Dante's Inferno, every class of sinners is imprisoned in his specific ring and circle, in the flames of Rodin's 'Gates' these compartments have been molten down and fused. Despite this grandiose flux, the protagonists remain isolated in their despair, each of them driven by their relentless passion. Dante's medieval categorizing structure gives way to a more universal drama of mortal mankind, "(...) adrift in an empire of night (...) damned on both sides of the tomb" [Elsen, Rodin, MoMa, p. 45]; instead of a Christian morality, Rodin confronts us with the dilemmas of modern man, for whom all clear orientation of values has gone astray.

Third Maquette of the Gates of Hell, Cantor FoundationThe first maquette (1880) already shows the asymmetric design, in which the straight outlines are intercepted by human forms. The third maquette (late 1880) comprises only three partss: the lintel and the two doors. Adapted to the increased spatial character of the figures, the entire framework has grown more massive.

Later, 'The Shades' were placed on top of the door and point to the center below, where 'The Thinker' -  also called 'The Poet', representing Dante himself - was placed in front of the box-like tympanum.

In 1885, Gustave Mirbeau published the first description of the work in progress:

"The portals two doors are divided into two panels, each separated by a group that forms a sort of doorknocker. On the right-hand door, Ugolin and his sons; on the left, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. ... Above the groups, Rodin has placed bas-reliefs from which protrude figures in high relief and scenes in mezzo-relievo that give his work an extraordinary sense of perspective. Each door is surmounted by tragic masks, heads of furies and terrifying, captivating allegories of sinful passion."

[Octave Mirbeau, 'Auguste Rodin', in La France, Paris, 18 Febr. 1885
For complete text, click here: Page 1+2  Page 3+4 ]

As we learn from this description, Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, the illicit love couple that was caught and stabbed by Francesca's jealous husband, The Kiss, enlarged, marble dominate the left wing, as "lovers doomed to be forever locked in each other's embrace though never to slake their passion". Mirbeau described a seated Francesca with "her arms around her lover's neck, abandoning herself to Paolo's kiss and embrace with a movement at once passionate and chaste." Obviously, Mirbeau had seen the first version of the famous "Kiss" here, building a counter-weight to 'Ugolino and his Sons' on the right door. 

Still in 1888, Bartlet described 'Ugolino' as the "chief point of interest of the right-hand part of the door". But photos by made by Jessie Lipscomb in September 1887 prove that by then, the Ugolino group had already been moved to the left wing; 'The Kiss' had been replaced by another group, 'Fugit Amor'.

Whereas the characters of Ugolino and of Paolo & Francesca can clearly be identified in Dante's 'Divine Comedy', Rodin created an additional host of over 200 figures, representing the damned souls in the underworld, writhing to escape the torments of Inferno. Judith Cladel described this impressive scenery as follows:

"Carried away by this marvelous technique, the spirit of the visitor succumbs; it follows this ascending movement of the doorposts, to lose itself in the sorrowful dream sculptured on the tympanum. On the panel writhe the clusters of human figures, the eddies of the multitude of damned souls pursued by the rage of the elements, by the devouring tongues of the infernal fire, by the frozen waters, by the wind that tears them and stings them."

Rodin: The Man and His Art; With Leaves from His Notebook, in 1917

Gates of Hell, plaster, Musée d´Orsay, Photo: William AllenDespite the atmosphere of doom and despair,  the protagonists do not appear as the emaciated souls described by Dante; apart from a single skeleton in the Tympanum and a series of "unbaptised children", all figures represent men and women at the 'ideal age' of ca. 30 (Audeh). As Dominique Jarassé notes, the male bodies are rather athletic, the female figures sensual: it is difficult to tell, if their bodies are twisted by agony or by lust. The whole panorama has an sexual undertone, Thanatos mingles with Eros, the borders between history, poetry, legend and dream are diluted and transgressed in a vortex of anxiety and passion. Already Gustave Geffroy pointed out this ambiguity:

"...the dizzy whirl, the falling through space, the groveling on the face of the earth of a whole wretched humanity obstinately persisting and suffering, bruised and wounded in its flesh, saddened in its soul, crying aloud its griefs, harshly laughing through its tears, chanting its breathless fears, its sickly joys, its ecstatic sorrows."

The whole project as such was blasting the framework of a publicly commissioned work that should serve as a an architectural element only. The portal, which initially had a size of 4.5 x 3.5 m (as can be deducted from Rodin's 1881 letter to Turquet, and a carpenter's bill of January 1881 for the wooden frame ), finally reached dimensions of 7.5 m x 4 m . To facilitate his intensive work - Rodin had planned to complete 'The Gates' within three years - the artist was given one of the state-owned studios in the Dépôt des Marbres at the Rue de l´Université with their high ceilings. In July 1888, Rodin moved to studio M; in 1883 he was given Studio H for himself, in 1890 he also occupied Studio J, where he continued to work on 'The Gates of Hell'. The original budget of 8,000 FF was increased several times till it reached the sum of 30,000 FF in 1888, of which Rodin actually received 25,700 FF in eight installments from 14 Oc. 1880 till 31 March 1888. Only to prepare  and clean his  plaster model for the 1900 exhibtion, Rodin did pay his assistants 32,438.85 FF.

The fact that the construction project stranded only seems to have propelled Rodin's vision and energy. Though the sculptor by 1887 must have recognised that the Musée d'Arts Décoratifs would never be built , he continued working on 'The Gates of Hell' - altogether over nearly 40 years. The portal can be considered as his life-project that recorded all the different styles and subject matters emerging throughout his artistic life, a Gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense , both experimental workshop and official representation, a bridge between the private and the public site of Art. In this archive of forms - 'my Noah's Ark', as he called it himself - Rodin would store his sculpural sketches, develop and adapt them; often, he would remove them again and present the figure or group as a work in its own right. 'The Kiss' - shown for the first time in the Gallery Georges Petit in Paris in 1887 as an autonomous work, named 'The Lovers', then in Brussels the same year - is only one of many works Rodin originally created as figurines or small reliefs for 'The Gates', then became autonomous statues and eventually were enlarged to monumental dimensions or translated into marble. Other well-known works derived from Rodin's life-long obsession with 'The Gates' are 'The Caryatid', 'The Prodigal Son', 'Sorrow', 'Crouching woman', 'I am Beautiful', 'The Martyr', 'Damned Women', 'Kneeling Fauness', 'Standing Fauness', 'She who was the Helmetmaker's beautiful Wife', 'Glaucus', 'Polyphem'.

Plaster model in Musée d´Orsay; Photo: Dan EdelenThe various figures and groups, modelled separately, were mounted on a wooden frame in 1882, to preview the total composition. In June 1884, Rodin asked his founder Eugène Gonon to estimate the costs of a bronze cast. On 20 August 1885, 35,000 FF for a bronze cast to be executed by the Bingen Foundry were reserved by the State - but never called for. The composition, by that time still showing 'The Kiss' on the left wing, continued to raise the sculptor's discontent. A few friends and art connoisseurs like Edmond de Goncourt and Félicien Rops were invited to see the plaster. Octave Mirbeau commented the development of Rodin´s studies with enthusiasm:

"All of those who had been able to admire in the artist's studio the finished studies and those in course of execution agree in saying that this door will be the greatest work of the century."

Octave Mirbeau, 'Auguste Rodin', in La France, Paris, 18 Febr. 1885; reprinted 1992, quoted by John Tancock, 1976, p. 96; See also Elsen, Rodin Rediscovered, p. 72, and Grunfeld, p. 188.

Félicien Champsaur published his impression in Le Figaro of 16 Jan. 1886, repeating Mirbeau's description almost litterally.

Instead of exhibiting 'The Gates of Hell' at the Universal Exhibition of 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution , Rodin showed his 'studies' at the exhibition he held together with Claude Monet at the Galerie Georges Petit. The visitors were amazed by..

"... a great number of these small figures pulsing with life which he modestly refers to as studies, but which were actually in the process of revolutionizing contemporary sculpture despite their small dimensions" 

[Arsène Alexandre, in Paris, 21 June 1889, reprint of the complete article in Claude Monet - Auguste Rodin, centenaire de l'exposition de 1889, Musée Rodin, 1989, p. 220].

In his article for Les Lettres et Les Arts, Geffroy wrote:

"The Gates of Hell is the gathering, in eventful motion, of the instincts, the fatalities, the desires, the despairs, of everything that cries out and groans in man. The poem of the Ghibelline has not retained any local color but instead has lost its narrowly Florentine meaning; it has been, as it were, stripped and expressed synthetically, like an anthology of the unchanging aspects of the humanity of all countries and of all times."

[Gustave Geffroy, Le Statuaire Rodin, in: Les Lettres et les Arts, Paris 1 Sept. 1889, quoted by John Tancock, 1976, p. 96;  reprint of French text as adapted for 1889 catalogue in Monet-Rodin retrospective catalogue, 1989, p. 59-69.]

Rodin in front of the Gates with Henriette Coltat; Photo: ChoumoffIn 1898, nine years later, Henri Frantz reported, "The artist´s dream ist to have the jambs carried out in marble and the two doors in bronze. But although the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs was deposited in the Marsan Pavillon of the Louvre by 1899, Rodin felt the architects involved were not interested in placing his giant (23" high) portal there .

Only in 1900, at the grand Rodin retrospective in Paris, Place d'Alma, 'The Gates' was shown to the general public - still as a plaster model. In this version, however, many of the projecting figures had been eliminated; it was during this period that the Master had begun stripping his works of narrative detail, trying to reduce his sculptural statement to the essence of shape, motion and space, often leaving nothing more but a fragment.

After the World Exhibition, the plaster was finally returned to Meudon. Rodin wanted it to be deposited nearby, though he had no time to give the work the final touch; in 1904, a Goverment document indicated the artist would need another three or four years to implement further modifications. For this reason, the budget of 35,000 FF reserved in August 1885 for bronze casting was cancelled.

 Posthumous cast for the Cantor Foundation at the Coubertin FoundryOnly much later the composition of 'The Gates' was restored to its original state by museum officials, relying on the pencil marks made when the portal was taken apart in the winter 1899/1900 before transport to Rodin's pavillon at the Place d´Alma. In 1916-17, Léonce Bénédite, designated curator of the planned state collection, had the complete work reproduced in plaster for the Chapel of the Musée Rodin - the example now displayed in the Musée d´Orsay. From a copy of this Bénédite model, the first bronze 'Gates' was cast posthumously in 1926, commissioned by Jules Mastbaum in Philadelphia . The Philadelphia Museum presented a second bronze cast to the Musée Rodin in Paris in 1929, now standing in the garden of the Hôtel Biron. Further bronze casts were made for the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and in the 1990´s for the Cantor Foundation. The Meudon plaster model as shown at the Place d´Alma in 1900 was restored in the summer of 1917.


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