DALLAS TWP. — When French sculptor Auguste Rodin was working on a figure of writer Honorè de Balzac, he was determined to create as realistic a likeness as possible.
But de Balzac had died decades earlier, so Rodin couldn’t measure the girth of his not-exactly-slender subject.
Undeterred, “he went to the man who had been Balzac’s tailor and asked him for the size suit Balzac would have worn,” Rodin expert Judith Sobol explained. “That’s how he got a sense of how big a man Balzac was.”
Sobol will speak at 7 p.m. Saturday in Walsh Hall at Misericordia University, following the gallery opening reception for an exhibit titled “Rodin: Portraits of a Lifetime — Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Collections.”
The exhibit, set to run through Dec. 9 in the Pauly Friedman Gallery at Misericordia, coincides with the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death in November 1917.
“In his own day, he was considered second only to Michelangelo,” Sobol said.
But some critics did not have such a high opinion of him. In fact, they looked at a late 19th-century sculpture he had created, depicting a muscular nude figure looking over his right shoulder, and said “The Age of Bronze” was so realistic he must have cast it from a live model.
In other words, they said he cheated.
“In Rodin’s way, that would not have been the way for an artist to work,” Sobol explained. “They thought he took a live model and cast parts of the body and then put the plaster cast of the body together. He was so undone by that charge, he said he would never again do a life-size figure.”
From that time on, Rodin sculpted figures that were smaller than life, or larger than life, which proved he was using his own intellect and imagination rather than simply copying a human form.
The artist is perhaps most famous for his sculpture “The Thinker,” but that isn’t part of this show. Neither is “The Age of Bronze.”
Among the remarkable pieces that will be on display, Sobol suggested, look for a large figure of the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. “He was an artist consumed with light and what light made visible in the landscape,” Sobol said. “The way Rodin has depicted him, it’s as if the artist has just seen the dawn break in the sky. We get a sense of movement and emotion.”
“Then there’s an absolutely beautiful little bust of a woman, ‘Mrs. Russell.’ It looks like silver, but it’s silvered bronze. She was one of his favorite models.
“She’s very serene,” Sobol continued. “Rodin’s women often were not complex individuals the way his men were. He would show them as silent or as serene, calming influences. Or as old hags. This one is enormously serene and kind of elegant.”
With the two busts of author Victor Hugo in the show, Sobol said, “you get a sense of the intellect of the man in one and in the other, you get Victor Hugo as a melancholy father mourning his dead daughter. You get the inner story without necessarily knowing the story.”
Revealing the meaningful elements of his subjects’ lives was part of Rodin’s genius, she said.
“He used the clay in service of the inner being rather than the outer look,” she said, adding Rodin is credited with transforming the art form.
“He is a crucial figure in making sculpture change from being very traditional to being very liberated and modern and free to all possibilities,” she said. “Before Rodin, a sculptor would give you what he or she wanted you to know. Your own interest and background had little importance. After Rodin, sculpture really provoked you as the viewer to add your own interpretation to it.”
After this story appeared in The Times Leader’s sister publication, The Weekender, earlier this week, Gary Arseneau, of Fernandino Beach, Fla.,who describes himself as an artist and art researcher, sent an email calling “at least 15” of the 17 pieces in the exhibit “forgeries” that were created after Rodin’s death.
Judith Sobol’s response is that Arseneau “does not have accurate information when he makes the charge. Every professional organization in the world understands that these are Rodin sculptures.”
“When Rodin did the piece he started with a clay or wax model,” she said. “That functions the same way a negative does in a photo. From that model, during Rodin’s lifetime, studio assistants and artisans made bronze figures.”
Before Rodin died, Sobol said, he made a deal with the government of France. Workers would continue to cast his work after his death in exchange for France establishing the Musée Rodin in Paris, “to safeguard his legacy.”
“In accordance with French law, these are authorized, posthumous casts, carefully marked, carefully identified in the exhibition,” Sobol said. “Museums all over the world collect and exhibit these authorized, posthumous Rodins.”