Auguste Rodin, 'Saint John the Baptist'

Auguste Rodin, 'Saint John the Baptist'

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
'Saint John the Baptist'
1879-80
Bronze
Height 200 cm
Inscribed 'Rodin' on the upper surface of base and 'Thiébaut Frères. Fondeurs/L.Gasne. Succr.' on the base
Museum no. 601-1902
Presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Committee of Subscribers, 1902

St John the Baptist was the first work by Rodin to enter an English public collection, and soon became the symbol of his dominant influence on sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century.

The second of Rodin's monumental bronze figures, it was deliberately made slightly over life-size to counter accusations that his first figure, The Age of Bronze, was a cast made directly from the model's body.

The form and modelling demonstrate Rodin's belief in the candid observation of uncontaminated natural man, a belief that derived from his study of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The work was also inspired by the unexpected appearance in Rodin's studio of an Italian peasant called Cesar Pignatelli. Rodin was taken by Pignatelli's wild, uncouth appearance and physical force , saying, 'I thought immediately of a St John the Baptist, that is to say a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor come to announce one greater than himself.' In fact, he is describing an outsider, someone with whom he and other avant-garde artists had a strong affinity. He used Pignatelli's wild air and wiry physique to convey John the Baptist's urgent effort to communicate, a struggle that makes powerful demands on his entire body as he strides forward.

Rodin exhibited the head alone as a bronzed plaster in the Paris Salon of 1879; the whole figure in plaster and carrying a cross in the left hand at the Salon of 1880; and the whole figure in bronze without the cross at the Salon the following year. The cross was removed to take away any narrative context for the figure, in much the same way that he had removed the staff from The Age of Bronze. This also allowed the torso of the figure to be viewed without interruption.

Dinner at the Café Royal, held in honour of Auguste Rodin, 1902. © Reading Museums Service, Reading Borough Council. All rights reserved. (click image for larger version)

The V&A acquired the bronze in 1902, thanks partly to the efforts of the British sculptor John Tweed, who led a public subscription to raise the £260 for its purchase. When it was presented to the Museum, Rodin was officially honoured by a dinner at the Café Royal, London, presided over by George Wyndham. After the dinner he was unofficially honoured by students from the Slade and South Kensington Schools (now the Royal College of Art), who harnessed themselves to his carriage and pulled their hero through the London streets. Their cab driver was the American painter John Singer Sargeant.

This warm reception may have led Rodin to see the V&A as a suitable home for the work he later exhibited at the 1914 Grosvenor House exhibition.