“The Greatest collection of Perfect Rodins in the World”
At the Legion of Honor

By: Iride Aparicio

Photographs by: Antonio Gadong


SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Unknown to many, our fine Arts Museum of the  LEGION OF HONOR  is, as attested in 1927  by Loie Fuller, “The greatest collection of perfect RODINS in the world.”

AUGUSTE RODIN’s  (l840-l917) bronze, plaster models, and marble works, have been associated with the LEGION OF HONOR (Its building fashioned after The Palais de la Legion d’ Honneur in Paris) since the fine Arts museum was founded in San Francisco in l924. When the museum opened,  in its front court yard, surrounded by a columnar of  Ionic non-fluted  pillars, was placed the  massive statue of  RODIN’s “The Thinker.”  The statue has identified the museum for years.

RODIN’s   The Thinker   l888 (Enlarged l902-l903)
RODIN’s   The Thinker   l888 (Enlarged l902-l903

Cast in Bronze, The Thinker  (Le Penseur  in French), is a  larger than life-size sculpture of a nude male figure, sitting on a rock with his chin resting on one hand as to indicate that he is in deep thought.  Describing his creation, RODIN said that what makes his Thinker think, is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms back and legs and with his clenched fists and gripping toes.

Named  “The Poet,”  the original  Thinker  was a 70 centimeter statue created  by RODIN to depict Poet  DANTE ALIGHIERI, the writer of the “DIVINE COMEDY.” Because of who he represented, RODIN placed The Thinker (who is looking down) in the center of a niche located at the top of a six meters high and four meters wide doorway, that had been commissioned to him by the Directorate of Fine Arts in l880, that he called,  “The Gates of  Hell.” The door, was supposed to contain l80, six to seven inches tall  bronze figures, depicting  different  aspects of hell. RODIN worked on the sculptures for the door  for 37 years, until his death in l917, but the work was  never completed.

Another bronze statue, that was originally casted in miniature for 'The Gates of Hell", that we could see at the exhibition  is “The three shades” that RODIN placed on the top center of the door’s frame, (directly over "The Thinker"). The three-persons statue, enlarged in l902-l903, is located in the back of the ADOLPH B and ALMA DE BRETTEVILLE SPRECKELLS GALLERY, which is the gallery facing the Museum’s main entrance.

RODIN “ THE THREE SHADES”  l898,  enlarged l902-l904
RODIN “ THE THREE SHADES”  l898,  enlarged l902-l904

"As sculptor, “RODIN gained recognition by braking the strict rules of Academic training in Paris in the nineteenth Century, and dispensing with the traditional Aesthetic boundaries to find a new vocabulary and create a powerful agenda for sculpture in the modern world.” tells  MAX HILLEIN, Director and CEO of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to the press at  the RODIN EXHIBITION press conference  held at the Museum on January 28th”  

Explaining the close connection of  RODIN and the LEGION OF HONOR,  Curator MARTIN CHAPMAN tell us that the RODIN collection was assembled by the museum’s American founder, ALMA DE BRENEVILLE SPRECKELS ( l88l-l968) the wife of sugar baron ADOLPH SPRECKELS (l857-l924) who was inspired to collect art by American dancer LOIE FULLER, who she met at a dinner in l914, in Paris. Because FUELLER was a friend of RODIN, she managed to interest Mrs. SPRECKELS in his work to the point that she became the sculptor’s  Agent in the United States. In 1924, when Mrs. SPRECKELS  founded the LEGION OF HONOR museum,  she decided to exhibit there their RODINS, which included many statues that RODIN himself had supervised in person before the sculptor death.

Curator MARTIN mentioned to the press that while many museums around the world,  have cast copies of RODIN’s statues, but that only THE LEGION OF HONOR has some of his original casts, a few even showing RODIN’s finger prints in the clay. "Most of  the RODIN’s works you will see in this exhibition  were done when RODIN was still alive and under RODIN’s  supervision," said MARTIN "And also unique in this exhibition, is that it presents the full range of  RODIN’s career covering his (works) from his early days in l870 to his never completed master piece "The Gates of  Hell."  

Discussing RODINs life, Curator MARTIN said that  RODIN, who studied drawing from an early age, may have become such a great sculptor because he carried with him, for the rest of his life what his drawing teacher had taught him: “To observe closely (the objects he was drawing) and add his own experience to his art.”  

 “RODIN discovered. early in life, that the more you look at an object, the more you found in the object. Because of it,  RODIN looked at his models, very closely,”  MARTIN suggested to those who are really interested in apprehend RODIN’s  work, to look at it, very closely.

To prove his point, the Curator used as his example one of RODIN’s most famous works "The statue of Saint John the Baptist Preaching" (1881) showing the press the lines in the coding of the bronze. We also were invited to observe how RODIN had managed to put “life” in a bronze statue.
With his left leg behind his right leg, the statue clearly indicated that the Saint is walking, as he is probably preaching, because his mouth is open, as if  he were talking. If one looks at his eyes,  they seem to be fixated on something, maybe looking at a crowd. Even more important is observing than aside from every perfect muscle cast in bronze in his naked body, the different shape of each one of his fingers clearly indicate that he is describing something, maybe heaven and hell because a finger in his right hand points up to heaven, and the finger of his left hand points down.

Curator MARTIN CHAPMAN discussing  St John the Baptist
 Curator MARTIN CHAPMAN discussing  St John the Baptist

Among the other RODINS discussed in detail by the Curator, was the plaster of  The head of Mademoiselle Camile Claudel (l880)

CAMILE CLAUDEL (l864-l943) was a French sculptor and graphic artist who studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, (one of the few sculptors' schools which allowed women) under sculptor ALFRED BOUCHER. During her time, she was described by other sculptures as “A woman genius with a more virile style than many of her colleagues”  Her early work was similar to RODIN’s   (see the photograph of The bust of RODIN at the beginning of the article)

The head of Mademoiselle Camile Claudel (l880)When in l889, BOUCHER asked RODIN to take over the instruction of his pupils,  CLAUDEL has the opportunity to work side by side with RODIN. Later on, she became his model, his inspiration and his lover until l898 when their relationship ended.

For those interested in plaster casts, there are several plaster statues in the exhibition at different stages of work, which allow the visitors to observe how a statue is being shaped. Among them are the heads  of Blazac, and of Pierre de Wiessant, and the head of a woman emerging from a round vase called "Crying girl disheveled" who with eyes closed, shows so much pain in her contorted face that looks real.  The work, which was reworked after l900, demonstrates the ability of RODIN the   sculptor, to show human expressions, even in clay.  

The exhibition has many other plaster statues that were reduced, and also Bronzes being reduced. Among them different individual models of the famous “Burghers of Calais” and even a plaster fragment of "The Gates of Hell’s door’s frame showing several nude figures of men, women and babies, descending into hell.

One interesting piece of work in the exhibition  is a marble carving showing the head and part of the chess of French Poet Victor Hugo. We were told, however, that while the statue was directed by RODIN, it was carved by somebody else.

Bust of French poet VICTOR HUGO (l917) Marble
Bust of French poet VICTOR HUGO (l917) Marble

We should add that the exposition also has another bust of VICTOR HUGO casted by RODIN that was cast in bronze in l883.

Since this is only the first of other RODIN’s  exhibitions, prepared by the LEGION OF HONOR MUSEUM for this year, we would like to suggest that in the future, the museum  exhibit less statues in each gallery. The reason is that as exhibited now, with so many works in each gallery, when the galleries are crowded, it is very difficult for people to stand and observe each sculpture in detail. And as curator’s MARTIN suggested in his talk, we, the public, need to observe RODIN’s sculptures in detail because he is one of the few sculptures capable to show feelings, muscles, veins, facial expressions, and  strength, in bronze.

While the master pieces of sculpture in the exposition are marvelous, in the opinion of CULTURAL WORLD BILINGUAL, nothing has as much impact as "The Mighty Hand."  


The Mighty Hand
The Mighty Hand

The catalogue informs us that the hand only took significance when it was enlarged and that the (plaster)  fragments show it in different versions than the Bronze rendition shown at the LEGION OF HONOR, which was cast directly from the plaster.

"The Mighty Hand," considered by many one of the most powerful of  RODIN’s creations, is believed to be cast  at the time RODIN was working on "The Gates of Hell", so we can do nothing but wonder. Does it represent RODIN’s hand, or the hand of God?  Since we will never know the answer to our question, all we can do is imagine that what those strong bronze fingers in the hand are grasping is the invisible genius of AUGUSTE RODIN.

Because of "THE RODIN CELEBRATION" this year, The LEGION OF HONOR Museum, that has over one hundred works of the sculptor.  is going to have different exhibitions of RODIN’s masterpieces, so we all could expect many surprises in the coming months

THE LEGION OF HONOR MUSEUM (which is closed on Mondays) is located at l00 34th Avenue in San Francisco, 94121. For information and tickets you can call at (415) 750-3600.