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Overview of The Memoirs of Artists Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin

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In the midst of 19th century France, the country was revolutionizing, the economy was stabilizing, and the arts were flourishing. Salons were popping up everywhere and skilled artists were given a celebrity type persona as their works were displayed in galleries across the country and noted by royals. Painting and sculpture were the main two types of art forms to be endorsed, until in late 19th century, photography was born. Many different artistic styles and techniques bloomed from the 19th century artists, giving the works a unified feel, with unique distinctions among the artists. Two artists who had a similar atheistic, but different purpose for creating, are the artists Edgar Degas, and Augste Rodin. While Degas primarily was recognized as a painter, in his later years found a new purpose for sculpture as aids to his paintings. Contrastingly, Augste Rodin focused on sculpture his entire life and flourished towards his later years. Through the examination of similarities and differences between the artists, Degas and Rodin, and their works, the progression, significance, and purpose of 19th century sculptural art is explained.

On July 19th, 1834, in Paris, France, Celestine Musson De Gas, a Creole from New Orleans, and Augstin De Gas, a banker, welcomed their eldest son, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas into the world. Edgar Degas grew up in a moderately wealthy family, was the oldest of 5 children, and had a love for painting as young child. He began schooling at the age of 11 at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, a public secondary school. Unfortunately, shortly after, when Degas was only 13, his mother died, leaving him to be raised and heavily influenced by his father and grandfather. However, Degas did continue schooling and graduated from the Lycee in 1853 at the age of 18 with a degree in literature albeit painting still being his passion. After graduating, Degas registered to be a copyist at the Louvre Museum, but his father protested and insisted he go to law school. Following his fathers wishes, Edgar enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris the November following graduation, but paid no attention in classes, and put little effort into his schooling. In 1855 he met Jean Auste Dominque Ingres, who became a life long idol of Degas’s and gave him advice on how to be an artist. Ingres claimed, “Draw lines, young man and still more lines, both from life and from memory and you will become a good artist” (Bade). Following Ingres advice, Degas got admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he studied drawing. A year later he traveled to Italy, and stayed with his aunt for 3 years, creating his first masterpiece, The Bellelli Family.

After the creation of his first painting, Degas moved back to Paris, France, and got a studio space in the heart of the city that he started working out of. In 1865 he exhibited in the salon for the first time with a painting called Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which unfortunately got very little attention. Shortly after his painting debuted, the Franco Prussian War broke out, causing Degas to enlist in the National Guard where he served for a short time, before getting dismissed due to bad eyesight. After leaving the war, Degas traveled to America to spend some time with some of his Mother’s relatives in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a short time. After his time in Louisiana, Degas returned to Paris, inspired and began to work with a small group of emerging artists who rebelled against the salon by creating and exhibiting their own work and their own shows independently (Brodskaya). The group of young artists is now known as the impressionists, whom which Degas worked with, hanging and participating in 8 different shows over the course of 12 years. However, in 1886, Degas and the impressionists disbanded because the impressionist movement became too popular and Degas didn’t get along with some of the members. He would often mock painters such as Monet for painting outdoors, calling it childish and unprofessional.

During his time with the impressionists, Degas’s only sculpture that was shown during his lifetime was exhibited. In 1881, Degas exhibited Little Dancer of 14 Years in one of the impressionist galas. Critics found the realism of the sculpture to be extraordinary, but thought the dancer herself was unattractive. Little Dancer of 14 Years was one of the first mixed media pieces to be shown, and also one of the only sculptures Degas created as a sculpture, rather than a painting aid (Brodskaya). Many of Degas sculptures were of tiny ballerina figures, standing no more than 18 inches tall, that he would sculpt and then sit in his windowsill as references to his paintings (Clare). During the later years of Degas’s life, his eye sight became very bad due to macular degeneration and he would place the sculpted figures in the window sill and use the shapes he saw with the shadows and light cast through the figures as a means to capture the image and paint it on canvas. During his lifetime, Degas created a large amount of sculptures over the span of the last 4 decades of his life, but majority of the sculptures remained unseen until after his death in 1918 (Clare). That being said, Degas never got to see any of his sculptures cast in bronze during his lifetime, but instead only saw the wax creations and generated himself. After Degas died, the heirs of his studio found 150 of his wax sculptures, 74 of them, which they casted into bronze. Adrien Herbrad, owner of a local foundry, casted Degas sculptures from surmoulages, a process of copying the original sculpture in bronze and then casting it. Unfortunately, surmoulages are a bit smaller and show less surface detail than the original bronze mold or sculpture, but nonetheless it was a proficient technique to restore and created Degas sculptures so they would last forever. Contrasting Degas, who only saw one of his sculptures ever cast in bronze in his lifetime, Rodin was fortunate enough to witness many of his sculptures be cast in bronze as well as celebrated.

Francoise-Augste-Rene Rodin, born November 12th, 1840, in Paris, France, was the 2nd child of parents Marie Cheffere and Jean Baptise Rodin. Growing up in a working class family, Rodin was primarily self-educated and began to draw at the age of 10. From the ages of 14-17 Rodin attended Petite Ecole, a school that specialized in art and mathematics, where he studied drawing in painting. In his last year of schooling, in an attempt to get into the Grand Ecole, Rodin submitted a clay model of a companion. Unfortunately, Rodin did not get accepted to Grande Ecole, and was also denied the other 2 times he applied. Because admission to Grande Ecole was perceived to be not very difficult, getting rejected 3 different times was a major setback to Rodin as an adolescent. After getting rejected from Grande Ecole, Rodin left Petite Ecole, in 1857 where he became a craftsman for the majority of the next 2 decades. However, in 1863, Rodin’s older sister died of peritonitis. Rodin felt guilty of his sister’s death because he had introduced her to an unfaithful suitor, and due to the guilt, turned away from art. Because of the grief and guilt of losing his sister, Rodin joined a Catholic order where St. Peter Julian encouraged Rodin to continue with his sculptural works. Rodin returned to work as a decorator and craftsman, but also took classes with infamous animal sculpture, Antoine-Louise Barye. Bayre taught Rodin the importance of details, and capturing motion in sculpture.

Back on his path of pursing arts and sculpture again, in 1864, Rodin began to live with, Rose Beuret, a young seamstress. 2 years later, she gave him his first child, a son, Augeste-Eugene Beuret and Rodin also joined the studio of Albert Ernest Carrier Belleuse. Rodin worked as Belleuse’s chief assistant until 1870, designing roof decorations, stairways, and doorway embellishments. During his time as chief assistant to Belleuse, Rodin got drafted to serve in the National Guard during the Franco Prussian War. However, similar to Degas, Rodin got released from duty due to his near-sightedness and horrible vision. After the war, Belleuse asked Rodin to join him in Belguim, where they collaborated on ornamentation for Brussels Bourse. Unfortunately, shortly after the move to Belgium, Rodin and Belleuse’s relationship deteriorated, but Rodin brought Rose and his son up to stay with him in Brussels nonetheless. After the falling out with Belleuse, Rodin went to Italy for 2 months in search of new inspiration. It was in Italy that Rodin fell in love with the works of Donatello and Michelangelo. Rodin claims “It is Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture” (Clare).

After gaining new inspiration, Rodin returned to Paris and worked on his first exhibited sculpture, Age of Bronze. Because the piece was so technically proficient, Rodin gained attention with Age of Bronze because critics accused him of casting a live model to create it, essentially cheating. Enraged with the rumors, Rodin forced newspapers and reporters to take photographs of the actual sculpture and the model to highlight key differences between the two (Rilke). Also, as a response to the accusations, in 1878 Rodin created his 2nd male piece, St. John the Baptist Preaching. St. John the Baptist Preaching was larger than life, standing at 6 ft. 7 inches, to make it anatomically impossible to be casted off a model. In 1880, as a semblance of a peace offering, Belleuse offered Rodin a part time position as a designer in the Serveres National Porcelain Factory. Shortly after accepting the offer from Belleuse, at a French salon, Rodin met Edmund Turquet, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts, who commissioned Rodin to create a planned portal for the Museum of Decorate Arts. The planned portal is known as the Gates Of Hell, which is one of Rodin’s most infamous pieces, featuring many of his renowned sculptures such as The Kiss, The Three Shades, and The Thinker. With the commission of the Gates of Hell, came a free studio space, which gave Rodin artistic freedom and more time to work on private commissions. Following the Gates of Hell, majority of Rodin’s sculptures in the peak of his career became commission pieces.

One of Rodin’s most famous commissions is the Burghers of Calais. Rodin began to work on Burghers of Calais in 1884, after being commissioned by Calais to create the piece as a tribute to its citizens. The piece was commissioned to commemorate 6 of Calais citizens who offered their lives as sacrifice to save the city. After a battle during the Hundred Years War, the Army of King Edward III attacked Calais and ordered that the entire population of the city be killed in masses. He would only spare the townspeople if six of the leading citizens of the city would sacrifice themselves to be killed in place of the townspeople. Valiantly, the six citizens offered themselves to King Edward III, heads shaved, barefoot, and with ropes around their neck. King Edward III ordered for the sacrificial citizens to be executed, but the citizens were spared by his Queen’s pleas to have them pardoned. Due to the intensity of the emotion correlated with the sacrificial citizens, Rodin designed Burghers of Calais to be viewed at ground level so viewers could see the looks of despair and anxiety on the sculptured faces and so viewers could emotionally connect with the sculpture (Rilke). Conversely, Burghers of Calais was originally displayed on a podium, and only got displayed on ground level, years after Rodin died.

Although Degas was primarily a painter, and Rodin was a sculptor, there were some similarities among themselves as artists and their works. Both artists grew up in Paris, France in the mid 19th century, were primarily self taught, and served time in the French National Guard. Also, both artists applied to schools and salons and got initially denied, causing them to seek education and inspiration elsewhere. Both artists traveled and found inspiration from artists of their time, as well as some of the greats who came before them. Sculpturally, both artists show their hand in their work, meaning that there is obvious texture and movement in the sculpture as to where each distinct mark with the hand was made. Additionally, both artists worked in bronze, however Degas work’s never actually got cast until after he died. The similarities among the artists show the unification of art in 19th century, as well as the idea that all art forms, whether painting or sculpture can be related back to one another.

While there were a few similarities, Degas and Rodin also were very different as artists. Degas was primarily a painter, and mainly focused on fleeting movements of ballerinas, with one well-known sculpture. Rodin was a well known sculptor, focusing on pieces embodying significant events, with a hardly any well known paintings or drawings, despite attending school for the media. Technically, in the bronzing process, many of Degas’s bronze sculptures are cast from surmoulouges, meaning that Degas would construct a form and then an exact cast was made from the form. Contrastingly, Rodin was absolutely enraged when his sculptures got accused of being surmoulouges. Rodin instead practiced a technique of creating miniatures, having assistants recreate the structure on a larger scale, and then have molds made of individual parts and forming all the bronze pieces together. Also, the purpose for why artists made their sculptures differed. Degas primarily used sculpture as an aid to his painting techniques in the later years of his life once his eyesight became bad. Rodin created sculptures to commemorate significant events or people, and worked mainly off of commissions in the later years of his life.

Working primarily off of commissions for the last part of his life, Rodin flourished in the later part of his career. He was a well-known, famous artist and got commissions to make portrait busts from prominent figures from all over the world. After Rodin died, he willed his studio to the French State and gave permission to make casts from his plasters. A few years after his death on November 17th, 1917, Musee Rodin was opened in 1919, containing the largest collection of Rodin works. The collection in the Museum includes over 6000 of Rodin’s sculptures and over 7000 sketches and works on paper. It is said that Rodin was recognized to be one of the greatest artist of his era.

Sadly, Degas’s ending years and final part of his career were not as glamorous as Rodin’s. Degas had continued working in pastel, photography and sculptural work up until 1912. However, Degas became very isolated, drove away many of his friendships and was not a friendly person. Throughout the entirety of his life, but especially towards the ending years, Degas believed that a painter could not have a personal live. Due to his argumentative and pessimistic nature, Degas spent the last years of his life, almost completely blind, wandering around the streets of Paris, before he died in September of 1917.

Both Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin were revolutionary artists of their time, combining new techniques and utilizing multiple medias and styles to generate a new aesthetic of 19th century art. Despite Degas being a painter, his sculptural works were beautiful and Avant-guard while also have good technique and attention to detail. Rodin’s sculptures were used to commemorate significant acts, and shows a great amount of mastery and skill in the detail and texture of the figures and sculptures as a whole. Although there are some similarities that correlate the artists, and some differences that set them apart, both Degas and Rodin were important artists to the history of 19th century art and how it evolved. Degas showcased the first ever mixed media sculpture, and aided in the creation of the impressionist movement. Rodin challenged the preset normalcies for sculpture by evoking meaning and emotion out his sculptures, and showing the artists hand though texture. Through the examination of works, the similarities and differences of the artist and the different purposes for creating the art, the importance and significance of 19th century sculpture is evident.

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