One of the greatest French novelists dies. One of the greatest French sculptors is commissioned to raise him a monument. Yet instead of presenting him in magnificence at the writing desk, he shows him in a bathrobe… Such things only in Rodin’s scandalous studio!
Honoré de Balzac was one of the founders of the Societé des Gens de Lettres. He died in 1850 and the members of the society felt the urge to honour him with a monument. Rodin was not the first one considered for this prestigious job. There were four candidates before him, the first one died, the other three had already submitted their projects, but it was Emile Zola, a recently elected president of the society, who pushed for Rodin who in the mid-1880s was still awaiting his incoming fame.
Rodin promised to make the sculpture in 18 months, but it took him 7 full years to complete it. He travelled to Tours, Balzac’s native town, to study local physiognomies, he read his works. He wanted to show that Balzac was above all a creator. And as the legend has it, Balzac used to work in a monkish dressing gown…
Yet to be frank, it took Rodin so long to finalize the project because he kept on transforming it,his design continuosly evolved (from nudes with very obvious phallic imagery to more subtle sketches…). With time he distanced himself from realistic representation to lean towards psychological truth which would capture the essence of Balzac’s greatness.
Finally, in 1898 Rodin showed the plaster cast of the design to the commission from the society. They rejected it calling it grotesque. Its interpretation of might was too modern and people were not ready for it as the public called it “a block of salt caught in a shower”. Rodin felt personally offended and said: “The Balzac statue is the logical development of my artistic career. I take entire responsibility for it.” And he took it away from Paris and kept at home. It was until 1939, shortly before the war, that Paris was ready for Rodin’s Balzac, for some the first truly modern sculpture. Rodin did not make it to see it, he died in 1917.