Artists need to have access to the best resources possible. For work from life, that means exactly that: do not resort to photographs when someone is alive. It demeans the sitter not experiencing them in the flesh. When the subject is no longer with us then a very different process evolves for a posthumous bust. The work cannot reference the physical object, but relies on secondary evidence, memory and the thoughts of others.
Rodin’s Balzac Memorial developed from a rich and lengthy enquiry which is well documented in Grunfeld’s 1987 biography. In 1891 he was approached after the death of Henri Chapu, who after producing works of Flaubert and Dumas had been commissioned for the Balzac work. Honore De Balzac had left neither death or life masks, but a stylised bust by David D’Angers existed, which Rodin thought would be essential to reference – but then decided it was impossibly compromised and wished to forget it entirely. An 1842 daguerreotype existed (above left) that Rodin pronounced the only faithful likeness of the novelist.
He used records from Balzac’s tailor and a suit was made, but it yielded nothing. Rodin visited the Loire Valley and found a distinct Balzac-like Touraine type; his quest for a living, imagined subject gave him models to create maquettes from. Aleister Crowley recounted in his memoirs: He had armed himself with all the documents and they had reduced him to despair. Filled with a sublime synthesis of the data which had failed to convey a concrete impression in his mind, he set to work; this consequently bore no relation to Balzac’s personal appearance at any given period.
Rodin spent years and made at least four attempts, (see the smiling head study; left) abandoning some when models were lost, others when they no longer spoke to him. At times he was tired and anaemic and in the creative doldrums. A draft motion was proposed that demanded Rodin finish, but others said he needed, after four years, to be allowed more freedom rather than write off the money already committed.
After seven years, the work (above, photographed by Steichen) was finally shown at the 1898 salon. It reduced some to silence; others laughed and made fun. The avant garde recognised it as a symbol of freedom they aspired to, whilst the protectors of the status quo detested it. Poet Georges Rodenbach noted Rodin wanted a decisive simplification; he broke with the inane tradition that requires a statue to be a portrait, an exact effigy.
An original sculpture evolved. You can study the chronological works and studies (1891-1898) linking to Balzac at the Musée Rodin here.