The Rodin Museum Celebrates the Hand

The façade of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.
The façade of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.

Rodin’s Hands, a new exhibition of sculptures by Auguste Rodin at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, opened a few weeks ago on February 4th and will remain on view through December 2023. Our editors visited the artist’s studio during a trip to Paris, which is now a museum dedicated to his work. We were struck by the depth of emotion that radiated from every wall, every display case, and every sculpture—emoting faces, writing bodies, serious busts, pointed feet, and hands in nearly every gesture imaginable. 

Portrait of Auguste Rodin painted by John Singer Sargent in 1884. Image in Public Domain.
Portrait of Auguste Rodin painted by John Singer Sargent in 1884. Image in Public Domain.

Since international travel is still a challenge for many given the pandemic, we have excellent news for our readers. This exhibition stateside will give you the same glimpse into the artist’s behemoth talent. Jennifer Thompson—the Gloria and Jack Drosdick Curator of European Painting and Sculpture and the Curator of the John G. Johnson Collection—curated the expressive show. 

New at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia

Auguste Rodin’s “Hand of Rodin Holding a Torso,” cast in 1917 by Paul Cruet of plaster, is on view at the Rodin Museum. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.
Auguste Rodin’s “Hand of Rodin Holding a Torso,” cast in 1917 by Paul Cruet of plaster, is on view at the Rodin Museum. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

“Rodin is the sculptor of hands—furious, clenched, rearing, damned hands,” wrote the French critic and poet Gustave Kahn, describing Auguste Rodin’s talent for concentrating emotion and storytelling into this body part. The exhibition invites visitors to consider how the artist’s modelling gives hands a tension and vitality that may be more expressive or dramatic than a figure’s face. Rodin almost obsessively explored the expressive power of hands, using them to convey an infinite variety of emotions and experiences. 

“Two Hands,” modeled in 1904 by Auguste Rodin. Cast in bronze by the founder Alexis Rudier. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.
“Two Hands,” modeled in 1904 by Auguste Rodin. Cast in bronze by the founder Alexis Rudier. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

The exhibition highlights fifteen bronzes and plasters—many of them rare or unique to the Philadelphia collection—to highlight Rodin’s process. Drawing on a vast stock of sculpted hands in his studio, the artist reused, reoriented, and repurposed hands in his sculptures to create unexpected juxtapositions and to infuse works with new meaning. It was not lost on Rodin or his contemporaries that sculptors are first and foremost modelers reliant on their hands. 

“Assemblage of Heads of ‘The Burghers of Calais,’” modeled in the late 1880 and cast of plaster in 1926. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.
“Assemblage of Heads of ‘The Burghers of Calais,’” modeled in the late 1880s by Auguste Rodin and cast of plaster in 1926, is on view at the Rodin Museum. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021. 

Enlarged hands or those distended by age or disease were vital components of figural sculptures such as The Burghers of Calais, The Three Shades, and The Helmet-Maker’s Wife. Later in Rodin’s career, works like The Cathedral and The Hand of God are comprised of hands, cut at the wrist or forearm, that offer symbolist essays on humanity and creation. The Cathedral, a sculpture modelled in 1908 that depicts two over-life-size right hands whose fingertips are about to touch, is one of the works shown. The sculptor published a book on the Gothic cathedrals of France in 1914 and renamed this piece, formerly known as The Arch of Alliance, after the rib vaulting found in Gothic churches. 

“The Burghers of Calais,” a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, in front of the Rodin Museum in Paris. Image © Design Diary.
“The Burghers of Calais,” a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, in front of the Rodin Museum in Paris. Image © Design Diary.

It is thought that he conceived The Clenched Hand and The Left Hand as studies for The Burghers of Calais but rejected the hands as being too animated. Recently, Stanford University scientists have proposed that the model for The Clenched Hand suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a nerve disorder that causes muscle contractions. Rodin’s desire to study nature and represent it truthfully inspired him to study medical specimens at the Dupuytren Museum in Paris. 

“The Clenched Hand,” modeled c. 1885; cast in 1925 by the founder Alexis Rudier. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.
“The Clenched Hand,” modeled c. 1885 by Auguste Rodin; cast in 1925 by the founder Alexis Rudier. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

A piece unique to the Rodin Museum is the bronze sculpture of clasping hands titled Two Lovers. The plaster model for it at the Musée Rodin in Paris is inscribed: “Hands of Rodin and Rose Beuret,” suggesting that the hands are those of the sculptor and his mistress and partner. In Rodin’s vision of creation, The Hand of God emerges not from heaven but from earth and cradles a rock from which male and female figures emerge. 

“The Hand from the Tomb,” modeled 1914 and cast in 1925 by the founder Alexis Rudier. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.
“The Hand from the Tomb,” modeled 1914 by Auguste Rodin and cast in 1925 by the founder Alexis Rudier, is on view at the Rodin Museum. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

The divine hand with its open, curving palm and outstretched index finger is identical to a right hand that appears twice in The Burghers of Calais: once on the figure of Pierre de Wissant, who raises it to his face in a gesture of acceptance and offering, and again for his brother Jacques de Wissant, from whom the hand hangs in a gesture indicative of hesitation and doubt. 

Rodin observing work on the monument to Victor Hugo at the studio of his assistant Henri Lebossé in 1896.
Rodin observing work on the monument to Victor Hugo at the studio of his assistant Henri Lebossé in 1896.

The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia is located at 2151 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. There are more details about the exhibition on the website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

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