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Mucha and Rodin: Friendship beyond Borders

/ December 15, 2021
It is easy to picture Rodin, often described as the father of modern sculpture, as a lone genius laboring to revolutionize French art. While revolutionize it he did, it is inaccurate to imagine his innovations in a vacuum. Rodin’s creativity was undoubtedly fueled by the friendships he cultivated with the artists and thinkers of his day. One of these extraordinary friendships, too little discussed in surveys of Rodin’s life, was with Alphonse Mucha.

Mucha moved to Paris in autumn 1887, when Rodin’s reputation was rapidly ascending along with the receipt of some of his largest and best-known commissions: The Gates of Hell in 1880, The Burghers of Calais in 1885, and The Kiss (as an independent work for the 1900 Paris Exposition) in 1888. Mucha, like Rodin, became enmeshed in the artistic and cultural circles of Paris, meeting Paul Gauguin in 1891, exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1894, and collaborating with the actress Sarah Bernhardt beginning in 1895.

Mucha probably met Rodin after 1896–97, when the Czech artist moved to a new, more expensive studio in Paris. Rodin was nearly 20 years his senior, and Mucha was incredibly deferential toward the French sculptor he persistently called Maître Rodin (Master Rodin). The rough emotionality and sometimes dark expressiveness in Rodin’s art evidently appealed to Mucha. The incredibly rare Nude on a Rock (1899) is clearly done in Rodin’s style, with particular resemblance in the crouched figure, ambiguous distinction between human and nature, and the expressive, hand-modeled form (see, for example, Rodin’s Danaïd [1885–89]).

Alphonse Mucha, Nude on a Rock, 1899, bronze, H. 10 5/8 in., Mucha Trust Collection, © 2021 Mucha Trust

Art is the most sublime mission of mankind, since it is the expression of thought, which seeks to understand the world and to make it understood. —Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin, Damned Women (Femmes damnées), 1911, bronze cast from The Gates of Hell, dedicated to Mucha, H. 8 1/4 × W. 11 × D. 4 5/16 in., Mucha Trust Collection, © 2021 Mucha Trust

The friendship between Mucha and Rodin would last the rest of Rodin’s life, with Damned Women (Femmes damnées) of 1911, which embodies the emotionality and violence of expression found in Rodin’s work, even being dedicated to Mucha. Perhaps the most well-known outcome of the connection between these two artists occurred in Prague in 1902, with the opening of the largest exhibition of Rodin’s work ever held outside of France in his lifetime.

The expression of beauty is by emotion. The person who can communicate his emotions to the souls of others is the artist. —Alphonse Mucha

Organized by the Mánes Union of Artists, a collective of Czech modernists, the exhibition was a resounding success, attracting 13,000 visitors in just three months, many of them travelers from abroad and—in an egalitarian effort by the Mánes Union—Czech workers who received discounted tickets. For the organizers the exhibition had the political potential of a world’s fair—an event that would bring the eye of the Western world to Prague, where the Czech faction there could assert cultural and political unity and dominance over the German faction loyal to their Habsburg occupiers. For Rodin this was an unmatched opportunity to expand his international reputation and presence.

Mucha’s close personal friendship with Rodin kept him involved in the planning and execution of the exhibition. Not only was Mucha the one to accompany Rodin on his tours of Prague and elsewhere in Moravia, but also it was promises of careful treatment from Mucha that helped induce Rodin to send so many examples of his work. To accommodate them properly, the Mánes Union had to build a special pavilion with an open floor plan and plentiful windows, one whose architecture combined regional traditions and the style of art nouveau.

This blogpost is adapted from an essay of the same name in the NCMA’s exhibition catalogue Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary, available in the Museum exhibition store while supplies last.

Michele Frederick
Michele Frederick is associate curator of European art and provenance research at the NCMA.

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