Scandalous Rodin: The History of Balzac’s Monument

Magda Michalska 12 November 2022 min Read

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!

Auguste Rodin, Balzac, 1892-1897, scandalous rodin
Auguste Rodin, Balzac, 1892-1897, Musée Rodin, Paris, France.

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) 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 honor him with a monument. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was not the first one considered for this prestigious job. There were four candidates before him, the first one died, and 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.

Edward Steichen, photgraph of the monument, 1911, scandalous rodin
Edward Steichen, photograph of the monument, 1911. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Rodin promised to make the sculpture in 18 months, but it took him seven full years to complete it. He traveled to Tours, Balzac’s native town, to study local physiognomies, and he also 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…

Auguste Rodin, Nude Study of Balzac, ca. 1892, Los Angeles County Museum of Art , scandalous rodin
Auguste Rodin, Nude Study of Balzac, ca. 1892, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Yet, to be frank, it took Rodin so long to finalize the project because he kept on changing his mind, and his design continuously evolved (from nudes with very obvious phallic imagery to more subtle sketches…). With time, he eventually distanced himself from realistic representation to lean towards psychological truth which would capture the essence of Balzac’s greatness.

Auguste Rodin, Monumental Head of Balzac, ca. 1897, Musée Rodin, scandalous rodin
Auguste Rodin, Monumental Head of Balzac, ca. 1897, Musée Rodin, Paris, France.

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.

He took it away from Paris and kept it at home. It wasn’t until 1939, shortly before the war, that Paris was ready for Rodin’s Balzacs, some of the first genuinely modern sculptures. Rodin did not make it to see it, as he died in 1917.

Get your daily dose of art

Click and follow us on Google News to stay updated all the time



Cupid and Psyche: Love Story Through Sculpture

Cupid and Psyche, mythological characters immortalized in Metamorphoses by Apuleius, have been inspiring artists through the centuries. Sculptors...

Valeria Kumekina 14 February 2024


The Lansdowne Heracles at the Getty Villa

Heracles (or Hercules) is perhaps the most frequently depicted hero in Greek and Roman art. This sculpture from approximately 125 CE, known as the...

Maya M. Tola 29 December 2022


Five Pioneering Modern Sculpture Artists of India

Sculptures have been a part of Indian culture since time immemorial. However, in the post-independent era in India, the practice of Indian modern...

Guest Profile 7 January 2022

Sun Sculpture

The City Where the Sun Never Sets: The Grounded Sun in Zagreb

No matter the weather conditions, there has always been sun in Zagreb for the last 50 years, 365 days a year, with few interruptions. This is thanks...

Petra Dragasevic 16 December 2021