Rodin’s Egyptian dreams

David Tresilian , Tuesday 10 Jan 2023

A new Paris exhibition explores the relationship between French sculptor Auguste Rodin and ancient Egyptian art, writes David Tresilian


The French sculptor Auguste Rodin is perhaps the only modern European sculptor to have achieved the fame of the continent’s earlier masters – men like Cellini or Michelangelo during the Italian Renaissance or, going back to the origins of the main European tradition of figurative sculpture, the sculptors of classical Greece and Rome.

However, while it has long been known that Rodin was a great innovator, like other artists working in different media in Europe during his time, it has perhaps been only comparatively recently that all the sources of his work have been investigated in detail. His innovations were based on careful study not only of his own immediate precursors, but also of sculptural traditions from classical antiquity and other parts of the world.

The Rêve d’Egypte or Dream of Egypt exhibition that opened at the Musée Rodin in Paris in October is therefore welcome for this and other reasons. Not only does it allow visitors to see this major French artist, known for sculptures like The Age of Bronze, The Thinker, and The Kiss, in a new light, but it also underlines how much Rodin and other European artists were concerned to rethink their own artistic practices by bringing them into contact with those from other periods and civilisations, in this case from ancient Egypt.

Rodin was a great collector, but not primarily of the works of his European contemporaries. He cast his net further afield, and in addition to his collection of Greek and Roman statuary, there was also his large collection of works from ancient Egypt. Starting in the 1890s, he began to buy ancient Egyptian objects from Paris dealers, at first small items like shabti figurines, statuettes of helper figures, and animal gods from burials, and then larger items like funerary masks from Egypt’s Roman and Coptic periods together with older objects like fragments of statues, parts of wall reliefs, and larger statues from tombs.

The small objects are on display in the opening rooms of the exhibition, held in the main temporary exhibitions space of the Musée Rodin and running until March 2023. They make an intriguing addition to the chronological presentation of Rodin’s work in the grand rooms of the Hotel Biron across the building’s courtyard, an originally 18th-century townhouse acquired by Rodin when he was at his most successful in the early decades of the last century.

Rodin sometimes shared the house with other artists, making it a kind of impromptu artists’ colony. Wandering through its enfilade of draughty rooms on a freezing winter’s day, one might wonder why Rodin wanted quite such a large Paris address, even allowing for its enviable location next to the Esplanade des Invalides, its extensive gardens, and its splendid views of the French military museum’s great gilded dome.

A desire to host other artists is only part of the answer, since as the Museum’s Website explains the Hotel Biron together with its gardens and collections of Rodin’s work was gifted to the French state on the artist’s death in 1917. Under the terms of Rodin’s will, the whole of the property was passed to public ownership on the condition that it not be broken up and that museums be set up both at the Hotel Biron, now the main site of the Musée Rodin, and the artist’s country house south of the French capital at Meudon.

The result is that visitors today have the opportunity both to admire this fine example of a French 18th-century townhouse and to follow the stages of Rodin’s career through the collections set out in its rooms. They include versions of the sculptor’s most famous works, either within the house itself or in the gardens, as well as examples of his test pieces and studies and objects from his own collection of other artists’ works.

There is a striking collection of classical sculpture on the Hotel’s upper floor, for example, consisting both of marble portrait busts and fragments of hands and feet. Rodin was notorious for licensing often very large editions of his sculptures, which explains why it is not necessary to go to Paris to see The Thinker or The Kiss, though seeing them in the context of his other works probably aids understanding.

The fact that so many artists across Europe chose sculpture as a career in the first half of the last century owed much to Rodin. He is widely credited with having redirected European sculpture in the final decades of the 19th century, finding new expressive possibilities even for the public commissions that caused him so much grief but that today are seen as landmarks of his career.


EGYPTIAN DREAMS: The later 19th century was a period of ambient Egyptomania in France, with the interest that many in the country had felt for both Egypt’s ancient and modern history since at least Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s Egyptian Expedition in 1798 being fed not only by the new ease with which French and other European tourists could now visit the country but also by a host of new Egyptological discoveries.

Fighting for recognition as a sculptor, but also willing at first to work in other forms, Rodin’s first collection of ancient Egyptian objects seems to have been put together partly because of the ease with which objects from this non-European sculptural tradition could be had from Paris antiquities dealers.

As the instructive timelines in the first room of the exhibition make clear, while other non-European artistic traditions were also attracting the attention of French artists, there were perhaps fewer opportunities to acquire objects from China, Japan, or Sub-Saharan Africa, among other places. This was beginning to change as items from other parts of the world started to flood into French museums. But the interest in ancient Egypt went back to the beginning of the century and had been fed by a series of high-profile events.

There was the installation of an obelisk from the Luxor Temple in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where it still stands today, a gift from Egypt’s then ruler Mohamed Ali in 1833, and there was the inclusion of Egypt in the major international exhibitions that took place in the French capital in 1855 and 1878 when ancient and modern Egyptian scenes were reconstructed for French audiences. French archaeologists like Auguste Mariette and Gaston Maspero also virtually invented modern Egyptology following the deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by another Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champollion, in 1822.

Rodin collected fragments of Coptic textiles, bits of sculpture, statuettes, representations of the ancient Egyptian god Thoth as an ibis and the goddess Bastet as a cat, funerary masks, and other similar items, all acquired from dealers such as the Kouchakji Brothers and Elie Geladakis, forgotten names but commemorated in the exhibition. One of his major suppliers, Léon Paul Philip, described himself as a fournisseur des musées, or “purveyor to museums.” Another, Marius Tano, was one of several dealers making frequent visits to Cairo. Later, there were others based in Egypt such as Joseph Altounian.

According to exhibition curator Bénédicte Garnier, Rodin collected “as an artist” and not as someone having a scholarly interest in the objects he acquired. He was interested in the handling of mass and form by the ancient Egyptian artists and by the way they represented the human body, and the exhibition’s large second room presents items from his Egyptian collection with trials and sketches from his own developing practice, indicating similarities, influences, and borrowings.

It also helps visitors to understand the scale of Rodin’s ambitions for his chosen art of sculpture, since not only are there rows of antiquities set out in glass display cases, but also details of his growing plans for them. While Rodin’s collecting habit apparently started simply as a way of stimulating his own imagination, by the early 1900s it had become far more systematic and on a much larger scale.

He was now planning to set up a private museum of sculpture that would provide historical reference points for younger artists and a record of his own chosen discipline. His collecting moved into a higher gear as a result, and instead of riffling through Egyptological bric-à-brac at various Paris dealers in search of things that might catch his eye, cases of objects now began to arrive from Egypt containing much larger pieces along with hundreds of smaller items.

Rodin had usually not seen any of these objects before he decided to purchase them, and in any case, as Garnier says, he was not interested in them from a historical point of view. The idea was to accumulate as many objects as possible, and in this he was helped by the large number of dealers then operating in Cairo. The exhibition includes some of the correspondence between Rodin and these individuals, also giving the background to the most important of them.

Egypt was something like an archaeological wild west at the time, and the individuals mentioned in the exhibition do not seem to have had misgivings about the destruction they were at least indirectly inflicting. We will never know how many tombs and other sites were raided, how much context was disregarded, and how much knowledge that we might have had was permanently lost as a result of the thirst for ancient Egyptian antiquities created by European collectors like Rodin.

Garnier gives the figures, explaining that Rodin’s Egyptological collection, exhibited during his lifetime at his house in Meudon, contained more than a thousand objects, including 288 statuettes, 14 funerary stelae, 87 wall reliefs from tombs or temples, 143 alabaster vases, mostly canopic jars, and 32 complete or fragmentary coffins or sarcophaguses. Many visitors will no doubt be struck by the melancholy labelling of these objects in the exhibition – it contains 400 of them – since while the labels give approximate dates for when the objects were made, they are generally silent about when and where they were found.

Some provenance can occasionally be established from Rodin’s correspondence and the surviving records of his dealers. Altounian, based in Cairo but carrying out regular missions to Upper Egypt, supplied many of the larger pieces after he started working on Rodin’s behalf in 1912. The exhibition contains records from his business along with documents from some of the other dealers that helped to make up Rodin’s collection. They indicate that often very substantial sums were involved.

The Musée Rodin working with other institutions such as the Sorbonne University in Paris and the Louvre has catalogued the whole of Rodin’s collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities and made the resulting information available online. Even if this cannot make up for what is missing, each object is described in detail along with the date, when known, that it entered the collection.  

All the objects in the exhibition have been restored by the Musée Rodin or other institutions. Even visitors not otherwise interested in 20th-century French sculpture will find much of interest in this excellent exhibition, which once again raises questions about the arts in Europe and what they took from the rest of the world, either in terms of influence or more directly through the art markets of the day.

Rêve d’Egypt, Musée Rodin, Paris, until 5 March 2023

A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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