Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2023
Antoinette Le Normand-Romain Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern Exh. cat. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022. 256 pp.; 210 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300264067)
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, June 18–September 18, 2022; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, October 21, 2022–January 15, 2023
Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern, installation view, Clark Art Institute, 2022 (photograph provided by the author)

Framed within the elegant glass architecture of Tadao Ando, the towering figure of Balzac (1897) welcomes visitors to the Clark. This first gallery serves as both the introduction and the conclusion to the show which occupies the museum’s dedicated exhibition galleries downstairs. In the background, a cut-out window on a red wall opens onto a large photographic reproduction of the 1954 unveiling of Balzac at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Immersed within MoMA’s posh crowd, visitors are invited to linger in a dedicated reading space and enjoy some historical people watching. The purchase of Rodin’s controversial sculpture by MoMA in 1954 marked “the revival” of Rodin in the United States after decades of dismissal.

Rodin is not a name that needs to be introduced to American audiences. In 2017, a slew of commemorative exhibitions celebrated the centenary of the artist’s death across the country. Since then, American museums have engaged with Rodin’s sculptures in new ways, generally in an attempt to destabilize the Eurocentrism of their permanent collection. Arguably one of the most successful interventions took place in 2021, when the Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu strategically placed two prone figures, Shavasana I and Shavasana II, at the foot of Rodin’s iconic Thinker (1904) in the Neoclassical courtyard of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. This compelling installation disrupted the imposing stature of The Thinker by setting it in dialogue with contemporary large scale bronze sculptures that brought attention to the sacrifices of Black women.

Unlike this recent initiative, Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern is based on the premise that the French sculptor should continue to be considered as the father of modern sculpture. Curated by the guest curator and Rodin expert Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, this delightful exhibition traces the formation of private and institutional collections of Rodin’s sculptures and drawings in the US. A decade after Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center 2011 exhibition Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation, 1876–1936, which investigated the influential role of Rodin on his American contemporaries, the current show also celebrates the relationship between the French artist and the US. It differs, however, in its investigation of the origins of American collections of Rodin’s work and the fraught relationship between Rodin and his American collectors throughout his lifetime and after his death.

The subtitle, “Confronting the Modern,” may be confusing at first. It essentially equates Rodin as “the Modern,” and reiterates the long-standing narrative that the young country of the United States looked up to France to find its artistic models. The introductory text panel to the exhibition makes this clear: “Rodin’s reputation is firmly established in the US today, but the path to his acceptance was a complicated, winding one, and the stories of the collectors and museums who embraced his work reveal a desire to look beyond the conventional to confront—and embrace—the modern.” Even though the exhibition reinforces the modernist narrative of the great white male genius, it does cast a new light on the little-known role that American artists, collectors, and friends of Rodin—most of them women—played in establishing a taste and a market for the French sculptor in the US.

Indeed, throughout the exhibition, women stand out as the major agents of Rodin’s success in the US. Sara Tyson Hallowell first introduced Rodin’s work to American audiences when she selected three of his sculptures to be shown at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (since his sculptures went unnoticed at the Centennial Exhibition of Philadelphia in 1876). Katherine Seney Simpson collected Rodin’s most pioneering works, like his Study for St. John the Baptist (assembled ca. 1899, bronze 1903), composed of the combination of a mutilated torso and a pair of legs. The sculptor Malvina Hoffman studied with Rodin in Paris in the early 1900s and then became an actual agent on his behalf serving as a liaison for American collectors eager to acquire his art. The actress, dancer, and choreographer Loïe Fuller also collected Rodin’s works. Moreover, she facilitated sales to the West Coast collectors Samuel Hill, a railroad executive who donated his Rodin collection to the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, a philanthropist and heiress to a sugar fortune, who collected Rodin’s works for the Legion of Honor. Visitors to the Clark show might notice the handwritten dedications left by Rodin to these patrons and collectors on the back of some sculptures.

The exhibition opens with the delicate marble of Cupid and Psyche (before 1886)—also featured on the cover of the exhibition catalog—whose title only serves as a pretext to represent a couple in a gesture of embrace. Removed from public view at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition because of its eroticism, this sculpture is ironically the sole work that—because it belongs to a private collection—may not be photographed in the present exhibition, and is emblematic of the successive scandals that would help advance Rodin’s name recognition. Rodin’s capacity to shock viewers survived beyond his lifetime, since in 1953, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston deaccessioned his one-armed, female nude Iris, Messager of the Gods (original model 1895, bronze ca. 1950). Deemed unexhibitable because of its charged sexuality, the sculpture, which concludes the present itinerary of the exhibition, was eventually bought by Joseph Hirshhorn, who gave it to his eponymous museum in 1966.

With the exception of Camille Claudel’s emblematic portrait of Rodin, every sculpture on display was made by Rodin—and his studio assistants. The wide-ranging scale of the sculptures from small fragments to monumental works in plaster, marble, wax, and bronze, highlight the great range of artistic mediums used by the French sculptor with the caveat that Rodin, like most of his contemporaries, never carved his own marbles, as the curator reminds us in a wall text. The exhibition gathers works from many US lending institutions, highlighting certain subjects of special appeal to American collectors, such as The Hand of God (original model 1895), featured in marble, bronze, and plaster, from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Maryhill Museum of Art, respectively. The show also includes a carefully curated selection of Rodin’s drawings from US collections, in particular his “black drawings,” some of which belonged at some point to preeminent American photographers such as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Gertrude Käsebier.

The elegant scenography is quite effective in showcasing the medium of sculpture. Cut-out windows in the exhibition walls serve as framing devices for pieces, and connect each section of the show. The exhibition is divided into three chronological chapters that tell the history of Rodin’s success in US: “The Era of Collectors, 1893–1917” covers Rodin’s first noted US presence at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition until his death. “The Era of Museums, 1917–1954” traces the creation of institutional collections of Rodin’s works throughout the country until the purchase of Balzac (original model 1897, enlarged 1898) by MoMA in 1954, which then leads to “The Revival: 1954–Today,” the final section of the exhibition. This comprehensive path leads up to the last wall panel, which states that “Rodin’s reputation as an innovative and influential artist is fully established in the United States today.”

After viewing this beautiful show, I was left with the following question: Do we still need to be convinced of the importance of Rodin’s works in American collections, at a time when museums are encouraged to revisit traditional Eurocentric narratives? Rodin’s success in the US resulted from the individual initiatives of a handful of powerful wealthy white men and women who were instrumental in building some of the major collections of US museums. On the East Coast, the cinema magnate Jules E. Mastbaum commissioned bronzes directly from the Musée Rodin, and created his own American version of the Paris Museum in his native Philadelphia. On the West Coast, the Cantors assembled an encyclopedic collection of Rodin’s bronzes, cast after his death, supporting the Musée Rodin’s unique model of financing itself through the sale of posthumous casts limited to editions of twelve.

The exhibition catalog features four comprehensive essays on Rodin’s sculptural modernity, his drawing practice, a study of the artist’s relationships with American collectors, and a short history of collecting nineteenth-century French sculpture in the US. The catalog section includes, in addition to an in-depth analysis on every object in the show, essays authored by the curators of the major collections of Rodin sculptures in the US: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which opened a gallery devoted to Rodin as early as 1912), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the steward of Mastbaum’s Rodin collection and museum), the National Gallery of Art, and the Cantor Art Center. A comparative chronology at the end presents Rodin’s biography in parallel with selected world events and the history of collecting Rodin’s work in the US. This richly illustrated catalog complements the exhibition well and opens new research avenues, such as the intersection between world politics and American collecting practices of Rodin’s work, left undiscussed in the show.

In sum, this exhibition is a feast for the eyes—and not only for the sculpture enthusiasts among us! Even though it is a celebratory exhibition of Rodin, it offers a comprehensive understanding of the role played by a small number of influential American collectors in the development of Eurocentric collections in the US. This delightful and beautifully designed exhibition offers, alongside its catalog, an in-depth study of the collecting practices of one of the most well-known late nineteenth-century French sculptors who was an undeniable marker of modernity. One might wonder though, what if “the modern” was in fact plural, beyond the one and unique figure of Rodin?

Clarisse Fava-Piz
Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University