Rodin Works: Monument to Balzac

The Monument to Balzac originally was commissioned to the sculptor Henri Chapu. When Chapu died in 1891, his work still unfinished, Emile Zola, the new president of Societé des Gens de Lettres, set all wheels in motion so that Rodin was invited as a candidate. Rodin promised to deliver a three meters tall bronze sculpture within 18 months, till January 1893, to be placed at the Palais-Royal in Paris, and was accepted by the Societé

Studies for the head of the Balzac statueTo capture the spirit of the writer who had died in 1850, Rodin followed his traces and made several trips to the Tourraine, Balzac's home region, making clay portrait sketches of men with a similar physiognomy.

Balzac, nude, studyThe numerous preparatory studies show Balzac nude and paunchy or athletic, later in his preferred work clothes, the Dominican cowl. In 1892, Rodin finished an outline for the 'Monument to Balzac', standing and draped. Years went by – Rodin had not finished his model yet. In 1894, the Societé threatened to dissolve the contract and pass the commission to another sculptor, Alexandre Falguière. Rodin put the 10,000 francs he had received in advance in escrow, and promised to speed up his work on the monument. 

Balzac, version 'F', Cantor Foundation. Photo source: FacosThe final version dates only 1897 - in the meantime the work on the 'Balzac' had slowed down due to Rodin's serious illness and his many other commissions. Still in the spring of that year, Rodin had worked on a Balzac with arms crossed, striding forward. But later, he abandoned this pose and started working on version 'F': an athletic figure with bulging muscles, holding his stiff penis and leaning slightly backwards - an attitude his younger colleague Medardo Rosso claimed to be 'stolen' from his 'Bookmaker'. Rodin ordered six plaster casts to be made, and had them covered with cloth, soaked in wet plaster. Abandoning the classical appearance step by step, Rodin finally arrived at a highly simplified version, showing a commanding, somewhat menacing Balzac, his sexuaL gesture covered by the empty-sleeved coat.

The enlarged version, exhibited at the 1898 Salon at the Champ des Mars , provoked a scandal fueled by the conservatives. The sculpture was associated with an erected phallus; other reactions interpreted the 'Balzac' as Narcissus, masturbating under his protecting coat, or as a "colossal foetus", a "German larva", or simply as a "heap of plaster".

The plaster version of The Balzac statue in the Musée d'OrsayThe Société des Gens de Lettres, now presided by Henry Houssaye, rejected Rodin´s 'Balzac' - and the payment of FF 30,000 it owed him for his work:

see Cléon, La Question Rodin à la Société des Gens de Lettres, in: L'Echo de Paris, 12 May 1898, quoted by Grunfeld, p. 377

Rodin was in the awkward position that his admirers, who tried to collect FF 30,000 to purchase his refused 'Balzac Monument' and put it at a public space, were mainly supporters of the imprisoned Jewish officer Dreyfus. In his open letter J´accuse, Zola had taunted the military leaders with a conspiracy against the innocent captain. Zola was summoned to court and condemned; the confrontation between the left-wing intellectuals and the conservative forces split the French nation. The association between Zola and Rodin may have been one of the reasons the 'Balzac Monument' was meeting so much resistance. But Rodin, unwilling to provoke the reigning powers, remained silent and refused to put his name under Mirbeau's manifest to support Zola, so that Jean Ajalbert scolded the stubborn sculptor for cowardice. In fact, Rodin was politically much more conservative than he admitted in public. The Norwegian author and painter Christain Krohg, who visited Rodin at that time, complained: "Rodin is a glowing anti-Dreyfusard and anti-Semite...".

Balzac in the moonlit garden of Meudon. Photo: Edward SteichenIn the end, Rodin sold his Balzac plaster neither to his friends, who were associated with the Dreyfus camp, nor to the art collector Auguste Pellerin, but kept it for himself and had it place in Meudon, where it was photographed by Edward Steichen. Apart from the necessity not to insult his most loyal supporters by accepting the Pellerin offer, Rodin must have felt that his work expressed something more profound and universal than the political and social concerns of the day. His protest remained limited to the rigid artistic regime, that had denied his entry to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. His most urgent mission was the innovation of Art, not of society, and in his Balzac, he saw the essence both of his subject and of his artistic ideas condensed: "Refining the sculpture adds nothing to the work", Rodin later explained to Maurice Mauclair.

Balzac in bronze, MoMa, New YorkThe revolutionary character of the 'Monument to Balzac' was indeed recognized by influential authors and artists, like Anatole France, Léon Daudet, Antonin Proust, Paul Signac, André Fontainas, Claude Bienne and the Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach:

Georges Rodenbach, L'Élite, Paris 1899, p. 290, quoted by Grunfeld, p. 375

In his conversations with Paul Gsell, Rodin later formulated himself:

"There was only one way to evoke my subject: I had to show Balzac in his study, breathless, hair in disorder, eyes lost in a dream; a genius who in his little room reconstructs a whole society piece by piece in order to bring it to tumultuous life.. who never rests, turns night into day, drives himself vainly to fill the holes left by his debts..."

 Paul Gsell, quoted by Grunfeld, p. 372

Elsen already pointed out that Rodin must have identified with his Balzac character, defining himself as a visionary artist with a higher mission. The rejection by the Societé des Gens de Lettres must have come as am artistic and personal defeat, confirming the anticipated roles of both Balzac and Rodin himself as misunderstood geniuses. In a letter, dated 14 November 1898, to his friend William Ernest Henley Rodin complained: 

"Our lives are, in truth, somewhat similar; and I have had, too, terrible sufferings in affection.* Profound pleasureless melancholy has come upon me. The struggle I must carry on still wears me out. ... What a sorry time we live in! Some believe in progress because there are telephones, steamships, etc.; but all that is only an improvement of the arm, the leg, the eye, the ear. Who shall improve the soul, which will soon disappear?"

see Wiliamson, Kennedy, W.E. Henley, London 1930, p. 251f., quoted by Grunfeld, p. 386

Being frustrated and realising how much time he needed to develop single works to complete maturity, Rodin did not complete his other commissions for public monuments after 1898, except for the 'Monument to President Sarmiento'. 'The Monument to Whistler', for example, was left unfinished. In 1910, Rodin told a journalist of The Morning Post:

"I am unfortunately a slow worker, being one of those artist in whose minds the conception of work slowly take shape and slowly comes to maturity. I lay my work aside while it is yet unfinished, and for months I may appear to abandon it. Every now and then, however, I return to it and correct or add a detail here and there. I have not really abandoned it, you see, only I am hard to satisfy."

see J. Newton and M. MacDonald, Rodin. The Whistler monument, Gazette des Beaux-Arts 92, 1978, p.226, quoted by Catherine Lampert, Rodin - Sculpture and Drawings, p. 135

Only 22 years after Rodin's death, on 2 July 1939, his 'Balzac' was cast in bronze and placed at the crossing of the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail.

* As a boy, Henley had suffered from a tubercolosis of the bone, and a part of his leg had been amputated (see Grunfeld, p. 1389).


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