Continuing a tradition of creating meticulous sculpture reproductions, The Met Store proudly offers a way for you to bring great pieces of art into your home. Today we’re highlighting the work of Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas, whose respective works, Hand of God and Bather, show the contemporaneous artists working with very different sets of strengths.
The pairing of Rodin and Degas may seem counterintuitive. Rodin was a famous sculptor in his own time, while his contemporary Degas was better known as a painter in his lifetime. The Impressionist publicly displayed only a single sculpted work, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, once in 1881. But the pair has been placed together before. In 1900, the work of both artists was on display at the Centennale, a 100-year retrospective of French art at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Rodin organized his first major solo retrospective in Paris to open roughly a month and a half after the Exposition started. There, he presented his partial figures Iris, Messenger of the Gods and The Walking Man as completed works.
Now that we live in a world where Rodin is among the most admired of sculptors, it’s odd to think of him as ever needing to boost his confidence; however, the exhibition was something of a vindication for the artist. Rodin had been chastened somewhat by the chilling reaction to his (now-famous) statue of the poet Honoré de Balzac. While Rodin called the statue “the logical development of my artistic career,” the public was not as interested. They called his depiction of the French literary giant, “a seal,” and “a bag of plaster,” and the Societe des Gens de Lettres, which had commissioned the statue, rejected Rodin’s work. Time and critical reception have been kind to Rodin’s piece, but when Rodin died in 1917, Balzac remained in the artist’s own collection in Meudon, outside Paris. A bronze cast of the work wouldn’t be displayed publicly until 1939.
In contrast, Degas kept the figures he made in his apartment and studio. The single public showing of his sculpture in 1914 was also a critical disaster. The first critic to see it on display, Louis Enault, excoriated the piece, saying that the “half-life-size wax statuette is simply frightful. Never has the misfortune of adolescence been more sadly represented.”
But Degas kept at his work. Though many assumed the sculptures were simply studies for paintings—indeed the subject matter, like his paintings, revolved around bathers and dancers—it’s possible that some of his “incomplete” forms were, like Rodin’s, actually complete pieces in and of themselves.
Degas’s reputation as a sculptor began to turn around in the 1920s. After his death, Degas’s followers began making casts of the 150 pieces of sculpture found in the artist’s studio, first displaying them in Paris in May 1921, and in New York in 1922. What once seemed “simply frightful” came into style, and now enjoys not only a positive reputation, but a noteworthy legacy. Art historians such as Richard Kendall position the Impressionist painter as “effectively the founder of a distinguished line of untaught sculptor/painters in the modern age, soon to include Paul Gauguin and, most famously, to be followed by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in the early twentieth century.”
The Degas Bather, offered by The Met Store, is just three degrees removed from the artist’s hand. The artist modelled the original in his studio between 1888 and 1892, and a limited number of bronze versions were cast in 1920. The Met Store sculptures were made from molds taken directly from these bronze editions. As Ronald Street, senior manager of 3D imaging, molding and prototypes at The Met, explains with a smile, “That was back when they let us do things like that.”
For posterity’s sake, sculptural reproductions made today are made with the latest in laser and photographic imaging. The patination and work to reproduce a texture, however, still necessitate a lot of hands-on work with the models. The artwork, though, can remain untouched. “Our mission is to first ‘do no harm,’” Street jokes.
Rodin, of course, knew all about handwork. He studied neoclassical sculpture both at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and while traveling in Italy. Just as Degas’s paintings overshadowed the rest of his work, Rodin’s sketches have long remained in the shadow of his sculptures.
His work affirms this hierarchy, however. For Rodin the hands were full of expressive possibilities, and The Hand of God indicates just how reverently the sculptor viewed his chosen medium. As the Met collection puts it, “the rough stone is both primeval matter and the sculptor’s medium; the smooth, white, emerging forms held by the hand are the bodies of the first man and woman, while the great, life-giving hand itself is a symbol of the original Creator, and perhaps quite literally, of the sculptor, as well.”
From cast stone, the realistic-looking sinews on Rodin’s Hand of God have been scaled down to better fit into the home by Ron Street and the team at The Met. The reproduction was made “by a combination of modern digital methods,” Street says, “including fringe projection blue light scanning, additive manufacturing technics (3d printing), and traditional hand methods used by artist for centuries,” which gives the final product that handmade look.