Bowdoin and Rodin: Connections and Coincidences

Story posted March 18, 2009

Having overseen the installation of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's exhibition, Rodin: The Knowledge of a Thousand Gestures, Interim Museum Director Clif Olds discovered a number of coincidental links between Auguste Rodin and the Museum.

Olds was inspired to dig deeper into the biography of the most famous and controversial sculptor of the 19th century and composed this summary of his findings.

On January 29, 2009, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art opened an exhibition of 12 bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin. All but the largest of these is exhibited in the Rotunda that occupies the center of the original Museum dedicated in 1894. That notable Renaissance-Revival structure was designed by Charles Follen McKim, a member of the distinguished firm of McKim, Mead & White, but its history really began in 1891, when Harriet and Sophia Walker decided to fund a museum in honor of their uncle Theophilus Wheeler Walker. When it was dedicated in 1894, it was only the second American collegiate building designed specifically for the exhibition of works of art (Stanford University's was the first).

rodin_3_shades_web530.jpg
The Three Shades, ca.1880–1904, (Musée Rodin cast II/IV in 1991)

Only one year before the Walker Sisters decided to provide Bowdoin with a genuine art museum, Auguste Rodin began the long and literally interminable project that would be known eventually as The Gates of Hell. That immense creation was to occupy the sculptor for the rest of his life, undergoing countless additions, deletions, changes in composition and alterations in its emotional focus. It also became the seed bed for a number of independent sculptures that either escaped The Gates entirely or played a different role than the one for which they prepared.

It happens that with two or three exceptions, all of the bronzes in the Bowdoin exhibition were among the "offspring" of this magnum opus, orphans of a project that was never truly finished, was never cast in bronze until after Rodin's death, and has never been easily deciphered. But like the fairy tale children hidden beneath the skirts of a homely but prolific mother, the progeny have moved well beyond their origins and are among Rodin's most famous works.

My reason for emphasizing the common date shared by this group of sculptures and the architectural masterpiece in which they stand, is that the Bowdoin-Rodin relationship is even more complex. In the later years of his life, Rodin became particularly interested in the sculpture of ancient Greece. There may have been many reasons why Rodin turned his attention to works of Greek antiquity, but at least one of those reasons connects him to the Bowdoin Museum. The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is fortunate to include among its collections a very large number of Greek and Roman antiquities of the highest quality.

Much of this good fortune must be attributed to Edward Perry Warren, the antiquarian who sought out many of the Greek and Roman masterpieces now owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Warren also had Bowdoin in mind, however, and what he didn't deposit in the MFA, he sold or donated to Bowdoin. As one might suspect, Warren spent much of his career in Europe, and there he became friends with many of the artists, poets and collectors of Britain and France. One of them introduced him to Rodin, who may not have needed much of a push toward antiquity, but whose journey in that direction was certainly accelerated by his acquaintance with Warren. Warren was also smitten with Rodin, ordering his own marble copy of The Kiss, one of the abandoned offspring of The Gates of Hell.

Although they were never foreseen when we decided to borrow the Rodin bronzes from the Cantor Foundation, these links to the Bowdoin Museum are at least worth noting. And we can add one more. The great murals seen in the lunettes of the Museum Rotunda, where most of the Rodins are exhibited — murals that the Walker Sisters commissioned of four of the leading painters of their day — include a wonderful apotheosis of Venice painted by Kenyon Cox. Cox knew and commented upon the work of Rodin, and although his appraisal of the master's sculpture is strangely ambiguous, ambiguity may have been one of Rodin's goals. In any case, it's interesting (although entirely accidental) that Rodin; the Walker sisters; McKim, Mead & White; Edward Perry Warren and Kenyon Cox were all alive at that critical moment in the history of art, and that they should be "reunited" in the galleries of the Bowdoin Museum.

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