This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Critique de l'oeuvre sculpté d'Auguste Rodin currently being prepared by Galerie Brame & Lorenceau under the direction of Jérôme Le Blay under the archive number 2000-167B.
‘From the great Victory of Samothrace, to Michelangelo’s Captive, to Rodin’s Kiss, the same rhythm gives a soul to all the masterpieces’
‘When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne'er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all trembling.
Galleotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.’
(Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto V, 127-38)
‘The young…body into which the artist has infused all the delicate and sensual beauty of woman, her arms thrown around the neck of her lover, in a movement that is both passionate and chaste, yields to the embrace and kiss of Paolo, whose flesh shudders with pleasure and whose elegant and powerful frame displays the strength of a young athlete’
One of Auguste Rodin’s greatest and best-known works, Baiser, moyen modèle dit "Taille de la Porte" - modèle avec base simplifiée was conceived in 1885, and was cast in the artist’s lifetime, in 1890. A particularly rare example of this seminal motif, the present work was presented as a gift to Dr. Paul Vivier, the doctor of his beloved companion, Rose Beuret, when she recovered from an illness in 1890. Emblematic of the heady emotion, eroticism and vitality that define Rodin’s radical oeuvre, as well as his distinctive, highly expressive form of modelling, Basier has become an icon of modern sculpture, transcending both the origins of its subject matter and the time of its creation to become one of the greatest illustrations of all consuming, overwhelming and rapturous romantic love.
Baiser was initially inspired by an episode in Canto V of Dante's Inferno, from his epic poem, La Divina Commedia. Dante recounted the illicit affair between two lovers from the Middle Ages: Francesca da Rimini and her husband's brother, Paolo Malatesta. The couple appear when Virgil takes Dante to the second circle of hell and they discover all those who have committed ‘sins of the flesh’ floating in the wind. Among them are great figures from antiquity and literature, including Dido, Cleopatra, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, and Helen of Troy, all of whom were condemned for lust. Francesca was a young woman from Ravenna, Italy who married Gianciotto Malatesta, Lord of Rimini in 1275. Francesca however, fell deeply in love with her husband’s brother, Paolo. The couple first realised their love for each other while reading of the Knights of the Round Table, and the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot. As Francesca describes to Dante:
‘”One day we two were reading for delight
about how love had mastered Lancelot;
we were alone and innocent and felt
No cause to fear. And as we read, at times
we went pale, as we caught each other’s glance,
but we were conquered by one point alone.
For when we read that the much-longed-for smile
accepted such a gentle lover’s kiss,
this man, whom nothing will divide from me,
Trembled to place his lips upon my mouth.
A pander was that author, and his book!
That day we did not read another page.”’
(Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto V, 127-38)
Tragedy soon ensued when Gianciotto discovered his brother and wife together. Enraged by their adulterous liaison, he stabbed them both to death, leaving their souls floating in Hell and condemning them to an eternity of torment; as Francesca poignantly says, ‘Love led us to one death’ (Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto V, 106).
Rodin chose to depict the erotically charged moment that the couple first realises their desire for one another, and kiss for the first time. While in Dante's description, Paolo initiates the kiss, Rodin has portrayed Francesca raising her body toward him, inviting his embrace. Her right leg is slung over his left, and she reaches up to pull his head towards her own. Surprised at Francesca’s show of love, Paolo has let the book slip from his hand, still open to the page that the couple was reading. Rodin has captured the instant in which the couple's lips are barely touching, a split second before they actually join in the forceful press of an impassioned kiss. Albert Elsen has written, ‘The whole impression...is one of Paolo's slowly eroding resolve and awakening desire’ (A. Elsen, Rodin's Art, Oxford, 2003, p. 211).
Rodin initially conceived this pair of tragic lovers for La Porte de l'Enfer (‘The Gates of Hell’), his monumental work representing Dante's Inferno that the French government commissioned from the sculptor in 1880. First placed on the left panel of the gates, the tender intimacy and romantic bliss of the infatuated couple did not fit with the starkly terrifying image of Hell that Rodin was trying to conjure, and as a result, it was removed, becoming an independent sculpture. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who acted as Rodin’s secretary for a time, would later write, ‘Rodin chose and chose again. He eliminated everything that was too singular to fit into the large ensemble, everything that wasn’t absolute necessary to this harmony’ (R.M. Rilke, quoted in A. Le Normand-Romain, Le Baiser de Rodin, Paris, 1995). The figures of Paolo and Francesca did remain on the gates however, but in the form of two floating spirits; their pose demonstrating the sad fate of the tragic lovers condemned to an eternity of unrealised love.
The motif of Baiser soon acquired its own independence and renown. Rodin first exhibited a bronze version at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1887, and later this year, a plaster, in Brussels, where it came to be known as Baiser; as one critic wrote, ‘this adorable group of lovers, as naked as the day they were born, that should simply have been called Baiser or nothing at all’ (quoted in A. Le Normand-Romain, The Bronzes of Rodin: Catalogue of Works in the Musée Rodin, vol. 1, Paris, 2007, p. 162). In 1888, the motif was commissioned in marble, at twice the size of the original, by the French state for the Musée du Luxembourg (this version now resides in the Musée Rodin, Paris). This marble was exhibited first in the Salon of 1898, where it occupied the centre of the colonnaded space, becoming a highlight of the exhibition, and subsequently in the 1900 Exposition Universelle, where it was met, as in the previous exhibitions, with wondrous critical acclaim.
While the theme of the embrace appears several times in Rodin's oeuvre, Baiser is unparalleled in its description of the rapture, passion and bliss associated with the inception of love. Presenting the figures in a distinctly sensual manner, Rodin chose to render the couple nude, eschewing the historical costumes and accoutrements that typically accompanied depictions of this pair. The only clue as to their identity lies in the suggestion of a small book beneath Paolo’s hand. In divesting them of the contextualising trappings of the story, Rodin has transformed the sculpture into a timeless expression of passionate love, universalising the theme of two figures who have succumbed to the power of their emotions. Passion radiates from every facet of the sculpture, expressed not just through the amorous pose of the couple, as their serpentine-shaped bodies seem to melt into one another, but from the resplendent delicacy of carving. Rodin has endowed these figures with the soft warmth of life, lending their bronze bodies nerves, fibers and sinews. Rodin explained the impetus behind the vital, life-like quality of his sculptures: ‘Instead of imagining the different parts of a body as surfaces more or less flat, I represented them as projectures of interior volumes. I forced myself to express in each swelling of the torso or of the limbs the efflorescence of a muscle or of a bone which lay deep beneath the skin. And so the truth of my figures, instead of being merely superficial, seems to blossom from within to the outside, like life itself’ (Rodin, quoted in A. Elsen, ed., Rodin Rediscovered, Washington, D.C., 1981, p. 81).
Rodin created two versions of the present work. The first version, known as the ‘Rudier’ version, was cast exclusively by members of the Rudier family; first by François as early as 1887, then by Eugène from 1902 until 1952, and later by Georges until the early 1970s. The second version, created a few months after the first, from which five copies were cast between 1887-1892, appear to all be cast from an early plaster now in the Milwaukee Museum. Of the two aforementioned versions, the present work is an important early cast and first proof (première épreuve) executed by the foundry of Griffoul et Lorge from the second 'Milwaukee' version around 1887-1888. This 'Milwaukee' version is particularly important because all of the casts were created during Rodin's lifetime. In addition, in contrast to later casts of this motif, where the man's hand touches the thigh of the woman, in the present work his hand hovers above her leg. This latter detail was in fact accidental. In the original plaster of the Milwaukee version the hand was indeed resting on her leg, but due to the shrinkage that resulted from the drying of the terracotta mould, the hand became separated. Moved by the poetic effect of this detail, Rodin left it in the final version. As he explained to Vita Sackville-West, ‘the man's hand was not resting on the woman's leg; it was about two centimetres from it. This was more respectful’ (Rodin, quoted in A. Le Normand-Romain, op. cit., Paris, 1995, p. 18). Furthermore, the Milwaukee version also has a slightly different base: the rock on which the two figures sit is rendered with angular planes, as opposed to the softer formation of the other marbles and bronze casts.
The dedication of the present work to Dr. Paul Vivier makes this cast a highly personal work documenting a personal friendship between the two men. Dr. Paul Vivier (1848-1930) was a general practitioner who knew the family well. According to Rodin's personal secretary and first biographer, Judith Cladel, Dr. Vivier was called upon several times to take care of the artist’s loyal, devoted and long-term companion, Rose Beuret. When Dr. Vivier left Paris to settle in the small village of Le Châtelet-en-Brie near Fontainebleau, Rodin and Rose were frequent weekend guests at his country house.
In the spring of 1890, Rodin had urgently called on Vivier, seeking advice for Rose after she had suffered a heart attack. Having received treatment from a local doctor, who had prescribed her caffeine, Rose’s health had deteriorated rapidly. Realising that the caffeine was poisoning Rose, Vivier altered her medication and, once she had improved, took her to Le Châtelet-en-Brie to recover, where she was later joined by the sculptor. As the months of her convalescence passed, Rodin frequently visited her at Vivier’s home, finding it a refuge and respite from the strains and struggles of his work. As archives in the Musée Rodin attest, in the summer of this year, Rodin commissioned the execution of this cast and presented it to Vivier, in a gesture of thanks for the doctor's kindness and support. As Judith Cladel, Rodin's personal secretary and first biographer, described in her book Rodin, sa vie glorieuse, sa vie inconnue, one day in the summer of 1890, the artist arrived in Le Châtelet-en-Brie with the present cast of Baiser. accompanied by one of his assistants who carried the large bronze in a wheelbarrow (J. Cladel, Rodin, sa vie glorieuse, sa vie inconnue, 1936, Paris, pp. 231-232). It is also known that Vivier owned approximately seven works by Rodin, including Saint Jean-Baptiste, and a marble head of L'orpheline alsacienne, now housed in the Musée Rodin, Paris.