Sculpture Creation by Rodin cover

Sculpture Creation by Rodin

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It is easy to lose sight of how innovative and revolutionary Rodin's work was in its own time. His conception of sculpture and the creative process were radically different from those of any sculptor before him. Rodin was not just the first modern sculptor—he transformed the art of sculpture. This NoteStream explains his process for manufacturing such beautiful works of art.


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Sculpture Creation by Rodin

Demand for Beauty

The 1890s were a time of insatiable markets, and no one was more modern, more admired, or more controversial, than Auguste Rodin (he was also brilliant at self-promoting).

The avant-garde and bourgeoisie alike celebrated this powerful, prolific artist and created a huge audience for his art. Rodin was more than willing to disseminate his work widely: between 1898 and 1918, the Barbedienne Foundation cast more than 300 bronze replicas of The Kiss–all originals–in four sizes, the smallest a popular wedding gift.

To keep up with such demand, Rodin had a large workshop of skilled artisans. Although he was untraditional in many ways, Rodin produced his sculpture following very traditional studio practices, practices virtually unchanged from those of the great sculptors of the Renaissance and later. Indeed, if you walked into his showroom at the Hôtel Biron in Paris or his studio at his home in Meudon, you most likely would not have known if the date was 1897 or 1597.

Training and Materials

Rodin worked in traditional sculptural materials such as clay, wax, plaster, bronze, and marble.

Although he did not attend the renowned École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, he learned the craft of sculpture through experience and years of employment in the studios of other artists.

In his words, “In addition to sculpture and design, I myself have worked at all sorts of things. I've cut down marbles, and pointed them; I've done etching, and lithography, bronze founding and patina; I've worked in stone, made ornaments, pottery, jewelry—perhaps even too long; but it all has served. It's the material itself that interested me. In short, I began as an artisan, to become an artist. That's the good, the only, method."

The Thinker

Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker remains an enigmatic figure today.

The Thinker

Originally named The Poet (French: Le Poète), the Thinker was initially a figure in a large commission, begun in 1880, for a doorway surround called The Gates of Hell. Rodin based this on The Divine Comedy of Dante, and most of the many figures in the work represented the main characters in the epic poem. Greatly enlarged and installed outside Paris’s Panthéon in 1904, The Thinker was already used in an advertisement by 1908.

“Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated on a rock, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.”—Auguste Rodin

Modelling

Rodin was a master modeler, and created his pieces first in clay, wax or plaster.

When he was satisfied, his studio assistants created replicas of his work in clay and plaster. From these, pieces could be carved in marble or be made ready for bronze casting. Although Rodin would supervise, he rarely participated in the creation of these marbles or bronzes, instead, relying upon his trusted and treasured craftspeople and carefully-selected foundries to guarantee that the resultant carving or casting would be to his satisfaction.

The modeled original was intended to be replicated in another material, thus the replica could be made larger or smaller. The Collas machine was devised to accomplish this transformation, and Rodin took full advantage of it. The first Thinker (1880) was 28 in (71cm) high, and would later be produced in sizes from 14 ¾ in (38 cm) to a monumental 79 in (201 cm).

The Collas Machine

The Collas machine, invented in 1836 by French engineer Achille Collas, uses a pantograph system to make proportionately larger or smaller duplications of a sculpture.

The concept can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman artists, who wanted to reproduce the perfect proportions of the human figure in their sculpture. Their method was called pointing. It involved taking measurements of the object that was to be enlarged or reduced in size. Then via mechanical means, the measurements would be proportionally increased or decreased when applied to the new material (marble, plaster, clay).

How Collas Machines Work

Collas machines often look like lathes.

On one turntable sits the first piece, the one to be re-created in a new size. On a second turntable, connected to the first, sits a clay or plaster “blank” that has been roughly shaped to resemble the model but on a larger or smaller scale. The machine keeps the model and the blank in the same orientation while the technician uses a tracing needle linked to a sharp cutting instrument (or stylus) to transfer a succession of profiles from the model onto the blank. Gradually the blank is worked so that it becomes a larger or smaller duplicate of the model.

Rodin and his skilled associate Henri Lebossé collaborated closely on reductions and enlargements. If the results were not perfectly executed, Rodin rejected them.

The Lost Wax Casting Process

Bronze objects have been cast using the lost wax (cire perdue) process for at least 5,000 years.

Although by Rodin’s day some of the techniques and materials have changed — and today continue to change — much of the process is as it was in ancient times.

Lost wax casting is for many the process of choice because it is extremely accurate in replicating detail and because of the durability of the objects it creates. However, the process is very arduous and time-consuming.

Most sculptors, including those of Rodin’s day when artists could choose from scores of foundries, depend on independent foundries to cast their works.

Step 1

Step 1

The artist creates a model, generally in plaster, clay, or wood.

Step 2

Step 2

The model is put into a bed of very fine elastic (shapable) material held in place by a rigid outer mold. When the model is removed, its impression remains.

Step 3

Step 3

Fireproof clay is carefully put into the impression, making a sharply defined duplicate of the artist’s original model.

Step 4

Step 4

The surface of this second clay model is slightly scraped away.

When this second model is returned to the mold, there is a gap between the model and the mold. This gap is where the wax will be poured. The final bronze will be of the same thickness as the gap that is created by the scraping.

Step 5

Step 5

After closing the mold around the clay model, hot wax is poured into the gap between the model and the mold.

The result is a clay model covered in wax, which is then hand-finished to fidelity, incorporating the artist’s signature, cast number, and a foundry seal.

Step 6

Step 6

A network of wax pipes, called sprues and gates, is attached to the wax-covered model.

These pipes first will allow the wax to escape as it melts. Later, they will enable the molten metal to flow evenly throughout the mold and will also let air escape as the metal is poured in.

Step 7

Step 7

A finely granulated ceramic is applied to the surface of the model and its pipes until it becomes thick and coarse.

The result, now called an “investment mold,” is then dried and heated. This causes the wax to melt and flow out of the mold, leaving a space between the fire resistant clay model and the investment mold. This is why this method is called the lost wax process.

Step 8

Step 8

Except for a place to pour in the liquid bronze at the top, the mold is covered with a layer of cladding (a protective metal coating), which must be completely dry before bronze pouring begins.

The investment mold is then heated to a high temperature (over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

Step 9

Step 9

Molten bronze (over 2,000 degree Fahrenheit) is then poured into the investment mold, filling the space left by the “lost” wax.

When all is cool, the cladding and investment mold are broken and the metal appears. The bronze sculpture and its sprues and gates are an exact reproduction of the wax in step 6.

Step 10

Step 10

The network of sprues and gates is then removed and the surface of the bronze is chiseled and filed so that no trace of them can be seen.

This process of hand-finishing the bronze to perfection is called chasing. Any remains of the fireproof clay model left inside the hollow bronze are removed now.

Finishing

When the process of chasing is finished, if the sculpture is small enough to have been cast in one piece, the work is given a patina.

Larger sculpture is generally cast in segments, and after all segments have been made, they are joined together, a process called braising. (Rodin often left the braising lines visible, so the viewer would always be aware that the artwork was made by an artist.) After braising, the artwork would proceed to patination.

A patina not only protects the sculpture, but also gives it color. It is a step in the making of the finished bronze wherein hot or cold oxides are applied to the surface of the metal, creating a thin layer of corrosion. This layer – slightly brown, green, or blue in color – is called the “patina.” The patina protects and enlivens the surface of the bronze.

Legacy Casts

In 1916, following an agreement made with the government, Rodin willed his entire estate to the Nation of France.

This bequest included his home and studio in Meudon, all his unsold sculpture (including unfinished pieces and fragments), drawings, letters, photographs, his library of books, and his art collection of mostly Asian and Classical Greek and Roman objects, as well as some paintings and sculpture by his contemporaries. At the same time he gave France the right to continue to cast his works posthumously.

Since Rodin’s death in 1917, the Musée Rodin in Paris has, for the Nation of France, followed his directions. Its authorized posthumous casts are made either from his original plaster molds or from molds newly taken from his plasters.