Born in the working-class Mouffetard district in Paris, the son of a clerk in the police force, Rodin failed the exam to the École des Beaux-Arts three times, and so began his artistic career as an artisan. He studied with Antoine-Louis Barye and Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran whose techniques of drawing from life and memory were to remain a part of Rodin’s practice throughout his career. He worked as an ornamental mason, as an assistant to Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, and for the Sèvres porcelain manufactures.
After the death of his sister in 1862 Rodin entered the Order of the Pères du Saint-Sacrement but was encouraged by its head, Pierre-Julien Eymard, to devote himself instead to art. Gradually, as his reputation as a modeller grew, his status changed, and in 1864 he was employed by the successful sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. When the decorative trades collapsed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Rodin followed Carrier-Belleuse to Brussels and, after a quarrel with him, formed an independent partnership with Antoine Van Rasbourgh . to execute public commissions. He also began exhibiting small-scale works and portrait busts.
In the winter of 1875–6 Rodin travelled to Italy, hoping to discover the ‘secrets’ of Michelangelo; he returned to Brussels equally impressed with Donatello, Raphael and Classical art. He resumed work on a standing nude male figure, using a soldier as his model; this was eventually called the Age of Bronze and in 1877 Rodin submitted it to the Cercle Artistique in Brussels and the Salon in Paris. He returned to Paris from Brussels in March of that year. The Age of Bronze caused a scandal in the art world in Paris, however in February 1880 a group of eight leading artists sent a letter to the government asking for Rodin, ‘whom we expect to occupy a great place among the sculptors of our time’, to be officially encouraged. The result was a rapid change of situation: first the state purchased the Age of Bronze; then, in August 1880, the Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Arts Edmond Turquet invited Rodin to provide monumental bronze doors for a planned new museum of decorative arts.
State patronage entitled Rodin to a studio at the Dépôt des Marbres, 182 Rue de l’Université, Paris , which he retained for the rest of his life, and financed a constant supply of models and technicians.
Rodin was asked to produce many commemorative statues of important artistic figures: the authors Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac; and the artists Puvis de Chavannes, Claude Lorrain, and Jules Bastien-Lepage. He was inspired by music and dance, in particular by Hanako, a Japanese dancer who performed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, and by Nijinsky, whose performance of Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune in Paris in 1912 Rodin greatly admired. His fragment sculptures, often no more than an isolated limb, have particularly intrigued contemporary scholars.
Themes of sexuality and creativity inspired much of Rodin’s œuvre and are expressed through physical torsion and explicit studies both in life drawings and in sculptures like Iris and the auto-erotic Balzac. These aesthetic engagements with passion have filtered into the mythology of the artist’s personality, evocatively constructed in Rainer Maria Rilke’s monograph. Rodin was to influence generations of sculptors, including assistants, like Émile-Antoine Bourdelle.