Editor's Pick

A Modern-Day Recast of Rodin and His Musée

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The 18th-century Hôtel Biron once served as Auguste Rodin’s exhibition hall and occasional studio in Paris. Today it houses the newly renovated Musée Rodin. Top: A second-story room holds plinths that were specially designed to support sculptures in the collection, such as Camille Claudel’s Vertumnus and Pomona, 1905 (far right). All photos © Musée Rodin, unless otherwise noted. Top: Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

You don’t come to a museum to read — you come to see,” Catherine Chevillot told a group of international press on a recent preview of Paris’s revamped Musée Rodin. “I hate museums that start with a room full of text, so here, as you will discover, there are no wall texts in the galleries.”

It was an unexpected opening statement for a museum director — especially for the director of a historical institution dedicated to the life and work of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), widely considered the forefather of modern sculpture  — and it offered an apt introduction to the surprises awaiting inside the institution’s entirely retooled main building, which reopened on November 12 after three years of extensive renovation. Despite the absence of writing on the walls, Chevillot noted, viewers can find an abundance of educational materials elsewhere in the museum.

Located just south of the River Seine behind the Invalides, the Musée Rodin was founded in 1919, two years after the renowned French sculptor’s death. Although he was based primarily in the neighboring town of Meudon, he officially donated all his works and his personal collection of art and antiques to the French state and asked that a museum be created under his name in the Hôtel Biron, an 18th-century palace in Paris that he used as an exhibition space and occasional studio during the last years of his life. Up until this recent renovation, however, the majestic two-story residence had not been touched since his tenure there, and beyond its lack of the necessary amenities expected of a modern museum — restrooms and an elevator, for example — the building had fallen into disrepair.


Left: Rodin stands among his plaster works in a circa-1908 photo by Eugène Druet. Right: Using this and other historical photographs, the museum has re-created the room shown here, placing the same works in the new layout. The artist displayed his sculptures on work stools, which have now been reconceived as oak pedestals. In Rodin’s time, models would undress behind the French screen.

During the three-year restoration, the 18th-century parquet floors were removed so that crews could increase their load-bearing capacity, allowing them to better accommodate hefty sculptures. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

Bespoke paint colors by Farrow & Ball add to the domestic charm of the galleries. Photo by P. Tourneboeuf/Oppic/Tendance Floue

The baroque wood trim, which was sold off by nuns who lived in the building in the 19th century and put back in place in 1965, has been returned to its former elegance. Left: A master craftsman restores the intricate woodwork above the windows. Right: A restorer carries out a painstaking cleanup of the Biron’s carved wooden interior doors. Photos by Jérôme Manoukian


Many artworks also underwent conservation, including Camille Claudel’s Vertumnus and Pomoma, 1905 (left), and plaster maquettes by Rodin (right). Photos by Pauline Hisbacq

Left: An archive photograph by Charles Berthelomier reveals how the Hôtel Biron looked around 1905, when Rodin was living and working there, with some of his statues on the lawn. Right: An anonymous portrait of Rodin, taken in 1907


Works are grouped under the thematic title “Emergence of a Sculptor,” in the gallery that examines Rodin’s entrance into the mature phase of his career. When the artist first displayed The Age of Bronze, 1875–77 (left), in Brussels in 1877, scandalized spectators claimed that the statue had been cast from a live man. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

The structure’s rebirth, which coincides with the sculptor’s 175th birthday and was overseen by Dominique Brard, of design firm Atelier de l’Île, promises new life for the works on view inside it, many of which have never been seen by the public, despite the fact that they reveal essential aspects of the artist’s process. Displayed atop specially designed oak pedestals modeled on the work stools that Rodin himself used to both create and exhibit in the studio, a selection of some 200 sculptures, maquettes and plaster casts are arranged throughout the galleries so that viewers can circulate around them. “Rodin’s work is about his materials, and that includes the reflections, the gestures, the volumes,” Chevillot said. “Vitrines often create too much of a screen between the visitor and the work, so we avoided them.”

The Hôtel Biron’s original flooring and panel parquets were entirely restored, as were its ornate wooden cornices and the damaged panes of its ample windows, which look out on a world-famous sculpture garden that includes some of the artist’s chefs d’oeuvre, including The Gates of Hell (modeled 1880–1917, cast 1926–28) and The Burghers of Calais­ (modeled 1884–95, cast 1919–21).

Since many of the rooms are flooded with natural light, a high-tech system adjusts the illumination according to the time of day and the season. Then there are the wall colors. “We found a sort of light green on the walls when we restored them, but we also wanted to use a second wall paint with the right intensity,” Brard explained, so the British paint experts Farrow & Ball created a special color, Biron Gray, to “bring out all of the materials Rodin worked in, from marble to stone or even the dark shade of bronze.”


The Thinker, 1903, one of Rodin’s most recognizable creations, permanently ponders the conical topiaries of the Hôtel Biron’s formal garden. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

A room on the second floor of the palace is devoted to the themes of fragmentation and enlargement. In the center of the gallery is Rodin’s Meditation on the Inner Voice, 1896. The plaster bust on the far left is The Burghers of Calais, Pierre de Wissant, before 1908. The painting on the left is Rodin in His Studio, 1897–98, by René Avigdor. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Hall was named for the late philanthropist and his wife, whose foundation donated $2 million to the museum, and whose private collection of works by Rodin is the largest in the world. On the left is Earth and Moon, 1900–01. The bronze in the center is The Burghers of Calais Pierre de Wissant, before 1900. Photo by Pauline Hisbacq

This new gallery is dedicated to Rodin’s collection of antiquities, along with his own statue The Walking Man, 1907 (center), which was inspired by ancient Greek forms. Photo by P.Tourneboeuf/Oppic/Tendance Floue

This ground-level space is dedicated to Rodin’s masterpiece The Gates of Hell, modeled 1880–1917. The sculpture on the far right is The Prodigal Son, 1905. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

A room known as Rodin’s Glory features (from foreground to background) The Hand from the Tomb, The Cathedral, 1908; and Hand of the Devil, 1903. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian


Museumgoers can get up close and personal with The Kiss, 1882–89. Photo by Jérôme Manoukian

“We wanted the museum to feel like a home, because it used to be a home,” he added, noting that 60 paintings and sculptures from Rodin’s multifaceted personal collection — which included Greek and Roman sculptures, 15th-century Japanese antiques and paintings by such contemporaries as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet — have been hung along hallways and staircases as they would have been during his time. “The challenge was to preserve the magic of the historic hotel, while making it feel alive and new.”

The museum’s grand foyer has been newly inaugurated as Cantor Hall, celebrating the museum’s longtime collaborators and benefactors Iris and Bernard Gerald Cantor, who assembled the world’s largest private collection of Rodins over the course of six decades and whose donation of $2 million to the institution marks its first private funding. “When I met Bernie, I realized very quickly that if I didn’t love Rodin, then I couldn’t love Bernie,” Iris says of her late husband. “When he died in 1996, he left such a great legacy that it had to be continued, so I consider myself the guardian of this collection.”

The marble sculpture that began Bernard’s obsession with Rodin — The Hand of God (modeled ca. 1896, executed 1907), which the collector first saw at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1940s — is placed underneath the dedication. “Everything comes full circle for me with this hall,” Iris says. “It’s a great honor, and I’m sure both Rodin and Bernie are smiling.”

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