Rodin's working methods combined a passionate response to the human body, and a delight in free, spontaneous drawing and modelling, with tight control over a large productive workshop.
Although his approach was in some ways radical and idiosyncratic, it was also formed by his early training, which took place in commercial studios rather than the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. This removed him from the rigid approach to the making of sculpture imposed by the French art establishment. The years that he spent in the highly organised workshop of Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1864-70) underpinned and informed his future sculptural practice. Most importantly, they allowed him to develop his masterly modelling skills.
Once established as an independent sculptor, Rodin set up a large workshop. There was a great demand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for both public and domestic sculpture, and Rodin was more than willing to disseminate his work to a wide audience. He authorised, for example, more than 300 bronze casts of The Kiss during his lifetime.
Like many other sculptors of the period, Rodin viewed the making of sculpture as a collaborative process. He employed highly trained plaster casters, carvers and founders, as well as studio assistants, to turn his original models into a finished work. As his fame grew, many young sculptors wished to become his pupils. Jules Desbois, Camille Claudel and Pen Browning, son of the poet Robert Browning, worked with Rodin as well as being sculptors in their own right.
On his death Rodin left an enormous number of casts, models, sketches and prints, as well as invoices and letters relating to his work. Many of these are now preserved in his former studio in Paris, the Hôtel Biron (now the Musée Rodin), and at the Villa des Brillants, his home and studio at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris.
Rodin drew from life incessantly. Drawings, rapidly made and keenly observed, were the often the initial stage of his figure sculpture.
His preferred practice was to record all the model's profiles and to observe the body from different heights, even from a step ladder on occasions. The extent of his observation is shown by the oft-repeated anecdote of his having difficulty drawing the abdomen of the young woman posing for a figure of Eve. He was puzzled by his apparent inability to draw her stomach accurately, until she told him that she was pregnant.
Initially, Rodin devised poses for his models, but later he preferred models to adopt their own poses. He especially liked the unpremeditated poses of ordinary people, an idea that came to his attention with the arrival of Pignatelli, the Italian worker who posed for St John the Baptist.
Modelling and plaster casting
Drawings were followed by clay models and plaster casts. These formed the basis for both his cast and carved sculpture. Rodin often had several plaster casts made of his original clay model. This allowed him to explore many different ideas, or to cut the casts up for further experiment, while retaining the original model and starting point. He built up a vast repertoire of plaster moulds and models, using them to devise new combinations and juxtapositions, or find fresh solutions to a problem. He also had plaster casts made of his finished, carved marbles, to allow them to be cast in bronze. Rodin prized his plasters, giving them as presents and expressing his gratitude to friends by inscribing them with a personal message.
Although Rodin is known to have favoured lost-wax casting (cire perdue) for his proposed Gates of Hell in the 1880s, there were few Parisian foundries capable of this technique. (View a video showing lost wax bronze casting, see the V&A website for the Gilbert Bayes Gallery ) The only lost-wax cast bronzes by Rodin in the V&A are the two portraits of the Duchesse de Choiseul and the one of Eve Fairfax. All three were cast by Montagutelli Frères and stamped 'cire perdue'. The Montagutelli worked for Rodin as plaster casters and founders until the early 20th century, when they were accused of making 'surmoulages' (illicit aftercasts) from his sculptures.
Most of Rodin's work is sand cast, the main method used in Paris since the mid 19th century. In sand casting, the model is pressed into special sand to leave a negative imprint from which a solid positive cast is then made. The casts are usually hollow. This is achieved by positioning a core, slightly smaller than the intended final cast, within the negative imprint. It is secured with pins to keep it away from the sand, thus leaving space for the molten bronze.
In producing these sand casts, Rodin usually worked with the foundry established by Alexis Rudier. In 1900 he is known to have preferred a Rudier sandcast of the Age of Bronze to the initial lost-wax cast by Thiébaut Frères, so he must have been reassured about the quality of sand casting. Many of the V&A bronzes bear the stamp of Alexis Rudier, but the actual founder is more likely to have been his son Eugène. In 1952 Eugène's nephew Georges took over the foundry, continuing to produce casts of Rodin's work with the permission of the Musée Rodin.
Patination and finish
Rodin was concerned about the patina, or coating, applied to his bronze sculpture, since the effect of light in creating surface form was important to him. Technical analysis of The Age of Bronze in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, reveals that the patina was applied in two stages. First, there was an undercoat of light green, then a coat of darker green, then in selected areas a further coat of turquoise.
In some of Rodin's finished bronzes seam lines are clearly visible. These are the lines left by the piece moulds used in making the cast. In Rodin's eyes, these seam lines were evidence of the making process. They showed his commitment to the concept of 'truth to materials', an idea that is more usually associated with later 20th-century sculptors, who carved directly the marble in front of them.
The extent of Rodin's involvement in carving is hard to determine. His training would have included carving, but in his own workshop it is more likely that he simply supervised the work, making pencil or chalk marks to guide the studio assistants. Marble sculpture by Rodin is usually seen as a product of his workshop, though many of his carvers later became established sculptors in their own right.
In making a marble, the assistant would use a mechanical pointing device to scale up, or down, the original model. This highly skilled process of transferral was often carried out by Henri Le Bossé, who began working for Rodin in the 1890s and had an instinctive understanding of the master's intentions.
Later in life Rodin experimented by making 'assemblages'. In the Torso of a Woman, for instance, he set a bronze torso on a modern plaster cast taken from a classical marble pedestal in his collection. There are many other instances of Rodin combining classical work with his own plasters to create new sculpture, or forming new combinations using existing plaster casts. The freedom and facility with which he did this shows a departure from normal workshop practice and an increasingly conceptual approach to the making of sculpture that points to developments in the 20th century.