Rodin Works: sHE WHO was the Helmet-Maker's once beautiful Wife
The sculpture 'Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière' is also known as 'The old Woman', 'The old Courtesan' and 'Winter'. In 1884-85, Rodin modeled it after a 82 year old woman named Caira , mother of an Italian model, because he was fascinated by the inevitable decline of human beings with its different mouldings of ugliness and personality. Like for the model of his 'Man with the Broken Nose', Rodin found that what we call "...commonly [...] ugliness in nature can in art become full of great beauty. [...] In art, only that which has character is beautiful. Character is the essential truth of any natural object."
Since the character is included in 'The Gates of Hell' on the lower left pilaster, Aida Audeh proposes to consider the prostitute Thaïs, appearing in Canto XVIII of the 'Divine Comedy', as the literary prototype of 'The Old Courtesan'. As a character from Terence's 'Eunuchus', Thaïs is dwelling in the second Bolgia of the Eighth Circle of the Inferno for the sin of falsely flattering her lover - although Terence had actually attributed these empty words of exaggeration to her servant Gnatho.
Then said to me the Guide: "See that thou thrust
Only after Rodin has exhibited his interpretation of Vanitas in the Salon of 1890 under the title 'The old Woman', Paul Gsell associated the sculpture in his 'Conversations with Rodin' with the poem of François Villon - a monologue of the old helmet-maker's wife about her expired beauty:
Paul Gsell already compared Rodin's 'Helmetmaker's wife' to Donatello's 'Magdalena' (1457), which Rodin probably had seen in Florence, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. There also exists an evident similarity to a sculpture of an seated, old woman, called 'Helmet-Maker's Wife' of the artist Andrea Briosco known as Riccio from Padua (1470-1532), exhibited in the Bibliotèque Nationale. In his metal reliefs, Riccio had dealt with both subjects of 'Paradise' and 'Christ's Entombment' - motifs that were relevant for Rodin's 'Gates', so that Rodin may have been familiar with Riccio's work.
Gsell explains the significance of Rodin's sculpture:
"The skin hangs in flacid folds upon the skeleton, the
ribs stand out beneath the parchment that covers them, and the whole
figure seems to totter, to tremble, to shrivel, to sink away.
It has been noted that Rodin's assistants Jules Desbois and Camille Claudel have created sculptures after the very same model as well. Desbois created 'Poverty' (terra-cotta, Musée Rodin) and later 'Misery' (wood, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy) and added a political dimension to his interpretation. It could not be established with certainty if Desbois first modeled 'Poverty' and so inspired his employer Rodin, or - as argued by Anne Pingeot - Desbois rather conceived of 'Poverty' around 1887-89, whereas Rodin created his 'Old Courtisan' probably around 1884 - as can be concluded from an anecdote related by Octave Mirbeau, according to which Rodin in that year deplored he had ruined his clay model of the old woman.
In 1893 Camille Claudel showed her symbolistic description of 'Clotho' spinning her hair to yarn. This character also appeared in her group 'L' age mûr', dealing with the fatal relationship between Rodin, Rose Beuret and herself and depicting Rose in the role of Death. As early as 1882, however, one year before she met Rodin in Boucher's sculpture class, Camille had sculpted her terrra-cotta portrait of 'Old Helen', dealing with the wrinkled physiognomie of an aged woman as well.
In 'Triumphant Youth'
(also called 'Fate and the Convalescent'), exhibited at the 1896 Salon,
the character of 'The Helmetmaker's Wife' is shown with a young girl on her
lap. The nature of their relationship remains unclear.
A double version of the old woman, showing front and back in juxtaposition, can be found in the plaster relief 'Two old Women in a Grotto', displayed in 1889 at the Monet-Rodin exhibition in Paris. This relief is also known under the name ''Dried-up Springs', probably referring to a line of Villon's poem: "What breasts! All wizened, Like my hips... ." In the Journal of the Goncourts of 3 July 1889, these female figures are referred to as "women with dried-up breasts who have lost all sex".
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