Gérôme, Rodin, and Sculpture’s Interior
A curious bust on view at the Musée Rodin in Paris shows a young woman asleep (Figs. 1 and 2).1 In the abandon of sleep, her head has slumped to one side. Her right hand, bent from the wrist, supports the cheek. A proliferation of details is sketchily indicated: the dark of the eyelashes blend into rings under the eyes, which in turn rhyme with similarly-colored lips and nostrils. This is a study in mixed-media Auguste Rodin made in preparation for the marble bust entitled Le Sommeil (Sleep) (c. 1889-1894, Musée Rodin) (Figs. 1 and 3).2 So heavily worked, so tortuously modeled, many of its details—evidence of a laborious production process—eventually disappear in the gentle curves of the bulky monochrome marble. Why?
Daniel Rosenfeld notes that the translucent marble has a certain ephemeral quality that resonates with the state of unconsciousness that the sculpture depicts: “In Sleep, the seeming fusion of the figure and its atmosphere, and, simultaneously, the inseparability of the figure from its base, are exploited by Rodin to evoke this woman’s mental drift. The composite plaster model predetermined the subject’s outward gesture of sleep. The internal sensations of withdrawal, weightlessness and self-absorption, however, are uniquely conveyed by the marble—its transparency, limpidity, and brilliance, its cohesion and compactness, qualities lacking in the original plaster.”3 While Rosenfeld makes a case for the hermeneutics of marble as a medium, his assessment does not help us address the question why the various layers of the colored study were eventually muted in the marble version.
The answer I propose takes its cue from Rodin’s notion of “interior modeling”: “Before the purity of the antique forms, people used to believe that the beauty lay solely in the exterior profiles. It is really beautiful because of the interior modeling. And still we make the distinction between the profiles and the modeling, thanks to our mania for dividing things; but we know that the one is inseparable from the other; the surfaces are nothing but the extremities of volumes, the boundaries of the mass.”4 According to Rodin, the exterior and the interior were continuous: in order to represent the exterior, one needed to take into account the interior beneath the surface. Modeling denotes the presence of an invisible interior, one which determines the shape of the surface from within. Paul Gsell reported an analogous conversation with Rodin as the artist explained his science du modelé: “Rather than imagining the different parts of the body as more or less flat surfaces, I pictured them as projections of interior volumes. In each swell of the torso or limbs I tried to give the impression of the protrusion of a muscle or a bone which extends deep below the skin.”5 Modeling for Rodin, then, was not simply modulation of projections and depressions that defined what was visible to the eye on the surface. It was, above all, a reflection on the presence of an interior—an interior that was invisible, and yet foundational to such projections and depressions.
This trope of an interior of sculpture—one which is invisible, and yet whose sensed presence animates and sustains that which is discernible on the surface—can be traced back to a number of late eighteenth-century precedents. The terms Rodin used to define his science du modelé approximate Toussaint-Bernard Émeric-David’s definition of le dessous and le dessus, the underneath and the exterior surface, as elaborated in Recherches sur l’art statuaire considéré chez les anciens et chez les modernes (1805).6 According to Émeric-David, in direct carving, a fully formed figure was discovered in the rock, so to speak, while in modeling the sculptor built up the work from the inside to the outside, from the foundational structure of the skeleton to the soft layer of skin that covered the musculature.7 Veiled by the exterior, what lay beneath nonetheless defined what was visible on the surface: “The various forms that the surface (le dessus) offers to our eyes are produced by projections and actions of interior parts.”8 Explaining the relationship between the terms le dessus and le dessous as one of contiguity, the author referred to classical representations of Prometheus modeling a skeleton, and preferred to interpret this iconography rather literally, arguing that this was probably how classical sculptors actually worked, by creating a core skeletal structure based on specific measurements taken from their models, and gradually building the rest on top of it in order to guarantee the lifelikeness of their figures.9 Moreover, if waves, swellings, and depressions on the surface denoted bones and muscles underneath, the motion of these interior elements themselves expressed affects—ripples from the inside of the body that reached the outside and, at times, became perceptible only as “fleeting undulation[s]”: “boredom, lassitude, impression of hot and cold, the prudery of a young girl who is seen in the nude for the first time, generate an almost imperceptible vibration.”10 Émeric-David argued that only an artist who paid attention to anatomy and closely observed nature, i.e. the model, could capture such effects of an interior life.11
While Émeric-David’s history of sculpture offered an account of naturalist mimesis as the driving force of sculptural production since antiquity, his work came on the heels of Winckelmann, who had equally endorsed the subtle yet determinant role of the interior. Winckelmann made the case both in his 1755 Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, and more extensively in the encyclopedic History of the Art of Antiquity of 1764. According to Winckelmann’s metaphysics of modeling, that which was reflected on the surface was essentially the quality of the interior, that is to say, the soul. And in classical Greek sculpture, that soul was essentially calm and grand: “Just as the depths of the sea always remain calm however much the surface may rage, so does the expression of the figures of the Greeks reveal a great and composed soul even in the midst of passion.”12 In his subsequent work, Winckelmann defined the impact of internal forces as tactile effects on the surface. Therefore the muscles of Laocoön, under extreme pain, “lie like hills that flow into one another, in order to express the greatest exertion of powers in suffering and resisting.”13 Winckelmann again applied a geographical metaphor to account for the surface of the Belvedere Torso: “like the surge of a calm sea, flowing sublimely in a gently changing beat.”14 Finally, the most elusive surface effect was reserved for the Apollo Belvedere, whose “muscles are subtle, blown like molten glass into scarcely visible undulations and more apparent to the touch than to sight.”15 Not merely sensing the presence of bones and muscles underneath the skin, Winckelmann formulated a geographical paradigm in which the movements of the spirit approximated forces of nature.16 There was an invisible interior to the sculpture that animated the visible surface, an interior that was the repository of underlying structures whose presence could be traced as fleeting effects on the surface.
Despite such forceful eighteenth-century theories, the art of sculpture lost its ground to painting in the first half of the nineteenth century. The increasing sense of the irrelevance of the art of statuary toward the middle of the century was most famously declared by Baudelaire in his review of the Salon of 1846 in the section entitled “Why sculpture is boring.”17 As Jacqueline Lichtenstein shows, for those who advocated the supremacy of painting, the art of sculpture, constrained by its inert materiality, had little to offer in the way of the ephemerality, intangibility, and fleetingness essential to nature, qualities fundamentally associated with color in French art theory since the seventeenth century.18 These had also been the qualities that gave painting the upper hand in its competition with sculpture for most of the nineteenth century: advocates of painting argued that painters tapped deep into the world of imagination and creativity through the application of color, and thereby measured up to the task of capturing the essential quality of nature, namely, its fragility, movement, and sensuality.19 By contrast, even when sculpture represented more abstract ideas or grand principles, its products existed as obdurate substances, “permanent, unchangeable, and immune to the depredations of time.”20
Against the illustrious background of eighteenth-century theorists such as Winckelmann and Émeric-David who attempted to elevate sculpture in its paragone with painting by asserting that sculpture was more than an art of the surface, of slavish imitation of the three-dimensional world, Rodin’s highly elaborate yet equally fragile and ephemeral study for Sleep gives us a glimpse of the radicalness of the artist’s experimentation in the privacy of his studio as he set up for sculpture the task of competing with painting in capturing the fleeting realities of organic life: the life-like tincture of the sleeping figure’s complexion, a sensation of blood circulating beneath the skin, but also a strong undertone of death and decay, are all notated by color. From this perspective, the contrast between the marble version’s thick and dense homogeneity, and the fragile, polychrome heterogeneity of the study becomes even more striking, and pushes us to explore Rodin’s notion of “interior modeling” further.
One approach to Rodin discerns some sort of an artistic sham, a make-believe, in marble versions of the artist’s works delegated to professional carvers:
With respect to the integrity of the sculptural object, for example, it is often maintained that Michelangelo’s work stands at the opposite pole to Auguste Rodin’s. Michelangelo’s so-called Atlas Slave is without doubt an “original” whose status is enhanced by the very fact that it remains unfinished. The figure emerges from a block which itself bears the marks of those processes by which it was brought to this stage of semi-completion. Indeed, those very marks guarantee its authenticity as a historic survival. Like the facture of a painting, they are signs that the shaped stone is an issue from Michelangelo’s hands. In Benjamin’s terms, those traces of the chisel constitute part of its ‘aura.’ By comparison, a Rodin marble such as La Pensée, although it displays similar signs of manufacture, is a fiction. Far from being unique, it is a version of a work originally conceived in a different medium (clay or plaster), translated into stone, not by Rodin but by a professional carver. In other words, the marks here do not show how excavation of the block was broken off (by chance or because the sculptor was dissatisfied), but deliberately concoct the unearned appearance of an image half-discovered in the rock.21
According to this line of thought, then, the deception derives from the fact that Rodin did not discover the motif in the stone as he chiseled it away, but had already invented it prior to carving, when he had modeled the preparatory clay or wax. The marks on stone, the argument continues, when seen as traces of the artistic process, come across as superfluous and misleading: they do not seem to pertain to the artist’s creative act, but merely to subsequent reproduction. This accusation has a long history, going back to Rodin’s lifetime. 22 In an essay written in 1917, for instance, Adolf von Hildebrand made the same claim, and proposed the same contrast to Michelangelo.23
But what happens if we do not read surface marks as indexical signs of the artist’s hand? If anything, going back to the two works with which I began my article, the bulky white marble Sleep suppresses traces of Rodin’s process so clearly demonstrated by the embattled mixed-media study. What if the aura evoked by facture on the surface of the marble is not one of spontaneity of the marks left behind by the sculptor’s chisel as he unearthed the figure buried deep inside the stone, but one of interiority—an interior which, by that point, had acquired a charged meaning as the repository of the artist’s creative process? It is the very process of the making of the work that is veiled by the exterior—as if the inner core as a variegated composite figure is locked within the massive volume of the stone, sustaining it.24 The fleeting, the ongoing, life is inside, while the surface that covers it guarantees its longevity, but also mummifies it, marking the end of the creative process, “sealed up against any further possibility of change” as British sculptor Alfred Gilbert put it somewhat elegiacally in a letter to his patron Mr. Illingworth.25
It is at this juncture that I propose to trace a link between Rodin and a seemingly very different artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme. What was common to both was an archaeological paradigm—a quest to signal the continual presence of the interior that underlay the surface akin to an archaeological layer, a repository of the past: the past, simultaneously defined as the anteriority of the artist’s process of creation, and as tradition/history epitomized in, but not limited to, the classical ideal.
In a biography published in 1906, two years following Gérôme’s death, Charles Moreau-Vauthier reported how an elderly Gérôme described facture in painting as epidermis: “facture is merely a matter of epidermis. The construction, to construct well, that is the most important thing.”26 The distinction Gérôme drew between facture and construction, and his attribution to facture of a place secondary to construction, seemingly belongs to a by-then well-established dichotomy of color and drawing (dessin) in painting. According to the proponents of drawing, color was secondary. Only drawing had the power to penetrate the timeless essential truths beneath transitory appearances. Seemingly disdainful of color throughout his career as a painter, Gérôme’s decision to turn to polychromatic and mixed-media sculpture in the last two decades of his life is puzzling. A life-long advocate of the supremacy of dessin as a painter, when he turned his hand to sculpture, the ultimate art of dessin, why did he contaminate it with color? The same Gérôme who declared pigment applied to the surface of the canvas merely epidermis, and construction the primary concern of art, added paint layers to his sculptural work. Why?
Gérôme’s words “epidermis” and “construction” take on a different complexion when we look at two programmatic paintings he produced in the late 1850s. The first was conceived on a trip to Egypt in the winter of 1855-1856, and exhibited at the Salon of 1857 under the title La plaine de Thèbes (Haute-Egypte) (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes). The preparatory pencil drawing, Thèbes (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes) (Fig. 4) shows a barren landscape, interrupted only by two giant sculptures in the background, and a circular object in the foreground—a base for a monumental column. In the oil painting, Gérôme added a road in the middle ground with a caravan proceeding towards the two monumental sculptures in the background. Another rather enigmatic addition is a large stone tablet in the lower right, positioned on a diagonal to the picture plane close to the edge of the canvas (Fig. 5). The massive stone, partially buried in the ground, is decorated with a bird-headed figure and hieroglyph-like signs carved in low relief.
Gérôme revisited sections of this route in a number of journeys in the coming years. A younger companion, Paul Lenoir, in a book dedicated to Gérôme, gave an account of one of these later trips in 1868. Throughout his book, Lenoir repeatedly describes the experience of crossing the desert, and gazing at the wide expanse of sand, which sometimes, under glowing sunlight, seemed like mountains of snow.27 The volume’s most striking anecdote relates to an observation Lenoir makes early on, during a visit to the site of the city of Memphis. What was left of the ancient world’s largest city was an abundance of sand strewn with residues of the past—bones, hair bands still attached to hair on skulls, amulets of the lion-headed Isis… “This profusion of debris within arm’s reach and on the surface of the sand makes one think of all that would certainly be discovered underneath.”28 Evidently, the ground hid much more than what it displayed on its surface. Such was the weight of the ground underneath—it contained the past, in all its omnipresence and insurmountable distance from the present time.
The stone artifact partially projecting out of the ground in Gérôme’s painting and physical traces of the past strewn on the desert sand in Lenoir’s account present a common archaeological trope that understood the relation between the modern-day present and the bygone past in spatial and tactile terms: the past is omnipresent underneath the ground that covers it, and yet it is fundamentally lost to us, the modern viewers. All we have are its residues. Charles Blanc, too, betrayed the impact of this archaeological paradigm in Grammaire des arts du dessin: architecture, sculpture, peinture (1867) when he described “nature” in terms analogous to Gérôme’s and Lenoir’s sand ground. According to Blanc, nature was a vessel containing residues of the absolute beauty of a bygone age, whose traces surfaced here and there akin to “those fragments of paintings that have survived in the ruins of ancient murals, or in the debris of those divine statues among the rubble in Athenian temples.”29 While nature thus possessed the kernels of absolute beauty, the artist’s task was to recognize and glean the elements of the beautiful—which were effectively residues of the past—thus strewn in the world, and to construct images deriving from those essential truths lying behind fleeting appearances.30
While for Blanc the mission of an artist was to discern and collect these residues in order to reconstruct the lost past, the problems Gérôme grappled with in a series of paintings in the 1850s demonstrate how such a mission of reconstruction would be problematized, and historical representation reconsidered, under the pressure of a novel understanding of history.31 The 1850s witnessed a crisis in historical representation, a culmination of the growing demand for empirical observation in art, and an emergent modern epistemology that posited the past as foundational and yet inaccessible to the physically and historically specific individual. How could a painter convincingly depict history—or persuasively represent anything at all, since everything that existed in the present time was now understood to be a product of obscure historical processes that traversed epochs exceeding the lifespan of a single individual? Since neither the artist nor the viewer could have actually experienced a bygone historical incident as it unfolded, was history painting even feasible in modern times? Under the weight of such questions, in a group of paintings in the late 1850s, Gérôme reconceived painting as a layered image with a depth that encompassed multiple temporalities. In doing so, he took his cue from the archeological spatialization of the residues of the past in the earth. The canvas ground became a highly charged area in Gérôme’s art during this period, and acquired a subliminal weight as a foundation where the past—the tradition—was located. This device enabled him to acknowledge invisible layers of history as sustaining the present, without having to visualize them.
A second painting demonstrates how Gérôme’s pursuit of a truthful history painting problematized the painterly facture as well. Death of Caesar (c. 1859, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore) (Fig. 6) shows a murdered Caesar stretched on the mosaic floor of the Curia Pompeii, and assassins fleeing the hall. This painting is intimately connected to a now-lost canvas, César (1859, formerly Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.) that had generated controversy among critics at the Salon of 1859 due to its unconventional composition, near-monochromy, and very thin facture.32 In the Walters painting, the weave of the canvas is perfectly visible to the naked eye beneath the slender layer of pigment (Fig. 7). Gérôme’s excessively minute brushwork invites the viewer to a careful study of the surface. However, any extended experience of the illusionistic image is quickly frustrated by the clearly visible pattern of the canvas ground. The Salon painting most likely had the same quality, which must have contributed to the objection raised by critics that one could see the grains of the barely-covered canvas, that “his color covers a canvas hardly more than ink eats into paper.—This is calligraphy at its highest expression.”33
For many critics of Gérôme, it would have been perfectly acceptable, even desirable, for the illusionistic image itself to disappear when viewed up close. Had not this been Diderot’s praise of Chardin’s achievement after all? The critic famously asserted in his review of the Salon of 1763 that what held as a perfectly illusionistic image from afar, when viewed from up close, dissolved into sheer, obdurate matter in Chardin’s work: “Move in and everything blurs, flattens itself out, and disappears. Step back and everything re-creates and reproduces itself.”34 As Lichtenstein explains, in the Diderotian paradigm the pigment-as-matter existed independently of the illusionistic image.35 Upon close view, such a mark on the canvas lost its iconic meaning, for instance as a glimmer of light on the surface of an apple, and instead became the index of a single brushstroke left behind by the artist’s hand (Fig. 8). As an indivisible spot of matter, the indexical brushstroke was then valued as a residue of the artist’s act of painting, an act that had taken place at some point in the past. The obduracy of matter at such close inspection was, consequently, valued for its metonymic connection to the body of its maker. A single instant, materialized and frozen, preserved for posterity, paradoxically denoted the immediacy of a past moment.
In Gérôme’s Caesar, when the canvas is viewed up close, like with the Chardin, the illusion of bodies and objects quickly dissipates. But Gérôme takes us beyond that. In Caesar, even the obdurate pigment dissolves. What becomes perceptible at such a micro-level is no longer the indivisible materiality of the pigment, but the presence of the canvas ground (Fig. 7). Gérôme’s notoriously thin facture is perfectly consistent with his philosophy of historical representation: everything that had taken place prior to the beholding of the canvas by the viewer, not only the historical event of Caesar’s death but also the more recent event of Gérôme’s act of painting, had to be located in the past. Therefore, to create a truthful representation, the facture’s indexical claim to immediacy had to be strictly regulated. Gérôme’s ultra-thin facture offered a solution as to how to create painterly illusion, and yet to police its claim to indexical immediacy: upon approaching the surface of Death of Caesar, what the viewer confronts is not the comforting evidence of the artist’s presence anchored in the indivisible materiality of the blob of paint, but the disappearance of any fantasy of historical presence in the grains of the canvas.36
Clearly such a reductivist approach to representation could not be sustained in the long run. While the full story of Gérôme’s transition from painting to polychromatic sculpture in the 1890s is yet to be written, I believe one of the primary reasons for this change to be intimately tied to the trajectory taken by the artist’s exploration of the canvas as a highly-charged ground—the quest to signal an invisible yet foundational depth that extends beneath the painted surface, one which contains the processes of the past. What led Gérôme to sculpture late in his career was a realization of a certain limitation of the canvas ground in representing the bygone past: marks made on the canvas could be layered—first, the pencil drawing, then the blocking in of colors, and finally the fine painting with a brush—but all such marks, the so-called epidermis, remained above the surface, analogous to footprints left in the desert sand. It was imperative to denote the physical presence of the past underneath the surface.
The answer offered by his once-polychrome marble sculpture Tanagra (1890, Musée d’Orsay) (Fig. 9) illuminates his decision to turn to sculpture late in his life.37 Today having lost most of the pigment that once tinted its surface, Tanagra shows a female nude personifying the ancient Greek city famous for its small terracotta statuettes. She sits on a mound, an archaeologist’s spade at her side, numerous tanagra figurines strewn on the ground around her. Small figurines materializing out of the earth mound—here projecting a head, there a limb to the surface—are all in a state of emergence, from the past to the present (Figs. 10 and 11). The surface is not only a receptacle of traces of past events, but a ground with a volume that contains the past within, and sustains the present above. As such, Tanagra expresses Gérôme’s deepest conviction pertaining to the radical alterity of history: that the past is omnipresent underneath the ground that covers it, and yet it is fundamentally lost to us, the modern viewers, except for its residues. In this sculpture, far from having changed directions, Gérôme in effect revisited his painting experiments of the 1850s, in which he had first explored the idea of the ground as an interface between the past and the present.
While the Musée d’Orsay’s Tanagra has been purged of its applied polychrome tint, a related work in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Head of Tanagra (c. 1890) (Fig. 12) retains its original polychromy, and offers a sense of what the Musée d’Orsay piece would have looked like. Gérôme colored not only the eyes and hair, but went so far as to suggest the skin itself through the application of a subtle hue of pink. What becomes clear upon close study of this bust is one major difference between tinted marble and oil painting on canvas: the application of color on marble lacks the indexicality of the brushstroke on the canvas surface. The tinted marble seems to be glowing from within, in opposition to the imposition of color on the canvas from the outside. Nor does the thin facture tinting Tanagra’s opaque marble surface raise the problem that once plagued Gérôme’s Death of Caesar: namely, the radical exposure of the ground. The Musée d’Orsay Tanagra’s polychromy must have enveloped the surface as epidermis. As the uppermost layer, it is the interface between the invisible past omnipresent underneath the ground, and the modern viewer inhabiting the present time—becoming neither one nor the other.
It is exactly at this juncture that I propose to trace an intersection between Gérôme’s and Rodin’s sculptures as well as their philosophies of art and history. An artwork that did not imagine an interior beneath the surface merely emphasized the surface and the present time of mark-making—at the expense of situating the layers of the past inside the work. That would have been a deception, an illusion. This is what Rodin referred to and condemned as a decadent flatness, one which he believed plagued the art of his period, and which he contrasted to modeling.38
Perhaps one of the works that best illustrate this condition in Rodin’s art is La mort d’Athènes (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) (Fig. 13), a small marble sculpture acquired by the Liverpool merchant James Smith in 1903.39 La mort d’Athènes consists of two nude figures: one partially buried in the ground, the other stretched on top of the first figure. An Ionic capital partially emerges from under the ground beneath the two. The sculpture is a composite of two earlier works by the artist: Danaïd and La Fatigue, both of which in turn derived from the artist’s work around Gates of Hell, the seedbed of his experiments in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.40 In his usual manner of working with plaster multiples of figures to create assemblages, Rodin combined the tragic figure of the daughter of King Danaus, banished to Hades to fill up a broken jar with water for an eternity, with the exhausted studio model of La Fatigue reclining in a pose of sleep, right hand tucked under the head for comfort.
I see La mort d’Athènes as programmatic in its aspiration to thematize the invisible interior of sculpture as a depository of the past. There are two aspects to this “past”: first of all, it is the past as tradition or history epitomized in the antique ideal of sculpture, buried underneath the visible surface of ground, and almost entirely out of our visual field, save for a partially submerged column head that gives us a clue as to whatever else might be lying beneath the surface. Secondly, the artist’s act of creation—the artistic process that brought forth this piece—has also been allocated to the past, buried beneath the surface. In the absence of a preparatory study similar to that of Sleep that documents individual acts of decision-making that built up the work, the artist’s marks of creation—marks produced in the process of modeling and constructing the study—escape the present time of the viewer’s experience of this piece.
As they reconsidered the role of surface and depth in art, both Gérôme and Rodin took their cue from, and attempted to reinvigorate, earlier theories about the contiguity between the exterior and the interior in sculpture. In the process, both stumbled upon a new approach to facture. If there is an aura to be talked about in this new facture, it is not one of immediacy, but of an invisible interior. The resulting works imagine grounds that are highly charged as interfaces—between the present moment inhabited by the viewer, and the past buried below. What is profoundly modern in their work is an underlying sense of the radical alterity of the past, one which is irretrievably lost, and yet whose debris is fantasized as populating the substratum of the present time.