An aesthetic revolution: the Balzac by Rodin

An aesthetic revolution: the <i>Balzac</i> by Rodin

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Title: Towards The Light at Midnight - Balzac (sculpture by Rodin).

Author : STEICHEN Edward (1879 - 1963)

Creation date : 1908

Date shown: 1898

Dimensions: Height 19.3 - Width 21.2

Technique and other indications: Bichromate gum proof on platinotype

Storage location: Rodin Museum website

Contact copyright: ADAGP © Rodin Museum, Paris

Picture reference: Ph. 226

Towards The Light at Midnight - Balzac (sculpture by Rodin).

© ADAGP Rodin Museum, Paris

Publication date: March 2013

Historical context

Victory of an aesthetic revolution

“Your photographs will make the world understand my Balzac ! "Exclaimed Rodin in 1908 when he discovered the nocturnal photographs taken in the garden of Meudon by the young pictorialist photographer Edward Steichen. Ten years after one of the most resounding artistic scandals of the 19th century, Rodin finally found in Steichen's works the answer he wanted to address to critics of the Balzac.
This statue that the sculptor considered the result of his whole life, the very pivot of his aesthetic, had been presented in May 1898 at the Salon de la Nationale, where it was shouted at by a large part of the critics and the public and refused by its sponsor, the Société des gens de lettres.
If the work was so shocking, it was because it shook the tradition of monumental representation of great men. After a fine documentary and iconographic research, after dozens of studies of naked or dressed bodies, heads and drapes, Rodin abandoned the project of a resembling portrait, eliminated any accessory, any attribute or allegorical figure, to put the vigor of its modeling and the play of shadows and lights in the sole service of a representation of the creative force of the visionary writer.

Image Analysis

The real subject of the monument

Tilted back, turning his haughty head away, draped in his ample dressing gown, this colossus seems by the power of his gaze alone to penetrate the mysteries of a world from which he keeps a distance. On discovering the monument to Balzac, the polemicist Henri Rochefort had declared in May 1898: “Never has the idea been to extract the brain of a man in this way and to apply it to his face! This provocative comment had the merit of highlighting the research of the sculptor, who wanted to achieve a moral rather than a physical portrait of the writer.
At the top of this "menhir", the leonine head on which the spectator's eyes rest is no longer truly human: "it is the face of one who has seen the whole human comedy", wrote Georges Rodenbach. “It was creation itself, which used Balzac's form to manifest itself; it was creation in its arrogance, its pride, its intoxication, its intoxication (Rilke). "The monument has become the personification of an abstraction.


Balzac affair, Dreyfus affair

By carrying out this aesthetic revolution, Rodin received the support of many intellectuals and progressive artists, engaged at that time alongside Dreyfus and Zola, such as Clemenceau, Monet, Courteline, Anatole France, Charles Péguy, Emile Gallé, André Gide… These had already gathered enough signatures and money to consider building the bronze monument in Paris, when Rodin refused their support. Above all concerned about his work, the artist remained indifferent to the Dreyfus affair, and feared seeing his sculpture associated with the major political struggle of the time: all the subscribers, except Forain, being Dreyfusards. Worried about this meeting of the two “affairs”, he preferred to remove his plaster cast in Meudon (where Steichen took his night shots) and give up the installation of the monument in Paris. It was not until July 1939 to see Rodin's large bronze being erected in the capital, at the crossroads of Raspail and Montparnasse boulevards.

  • writers
  • Balzac (Honoré de)
  • photography
  • pictorialism
  • Rodin (Auguste)
  • scandal
  • sculpture
  • Dreyfus Affair
  • Gide (André)
  • Dreyfusards


Geneviève BRESC-BAUTIER and Xavier DECTOT (dir.) Art or politics? Arches, statues and columns of Paris Artistic action of the City of Paris, 1999 Antoinette ROMAIN (dir.) 1898: Rodin's Balzac Paris, Rodin Museum, 1998.Ruth BUTLER Rodin, the solitude of genius . First edition Rodin. The Shape of Genius , London, Yale University Press, 1993. Trad. from English by Dennis Collins Paris, Gallimard-Musée Rodin, 1998 Yves GAGNEUX (dir.) The Artist according to Balzac: Between the height of the scientist and the vertigo of the madman Paris, Judith Meyer-Petit, Maison de Balzac, Paris-museums, 1999.June Ellen HARGROVE The Statues of Paris. The representation of great men in the streets and squares of Paris Antwerp-Paris, Mercator-Albin Michel Fund, 1989.

To cite this article

Frédérique LESEUR, "An aesthetic revolution: the Balzac by Rodin "

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