A-Level: Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell

Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell​, 1880-1917, plaster (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

When the building that stood on what is now the site of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris was destroyed by fire during the Commune in 1871, plans were drawn up to replace it with a museum of decorative arts. Rodin won the competition to design a great set of doors for its entryway. Although the museum was never built, Rodin continued to work on the doors. They became an ongoing project; a grand stage for his sculptural ideas. It’s fitting that the plaster of this great unfinished sculpture, The Gates of Hell, is now on display at the d’Orsay, the former railway terminal that was built on this site instead of the museum of decorative arts and that, by lovely coincidence, was converted into one of the world’s great art museums.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re at the Musée d’Orsay,and we’re looking at a cast from 1917, the year that Rodin died, of his “The Gates of Hell,” which is this huge project that the artist worked on for the last decades of his life, that he never finished. In fact, we’re not even sure how it fits together because it was found in pieces in his studio.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:27] We’re looking at a plaster cast. It’s impossible to think about doors without thinking about Ghiberti’s doors on the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence, which were called “The Gates of Paradise” because they were so beautiful. Because, of course, those depict biblical scenes from the Old and New Testament, but here we’re really unmoored from that tradition, from that iconography.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] Well, it’s a literary tradition and it’s referring back to Dante, but ever so loosely.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] We have Dante at the top there.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] Right. He is in the tympana. That’s also a standalone sculpture, which is called “The Thinker,” and is here Dante gazing into hell. We should actually say, this was a commission, and this was intended to be for a building on the site of the Musée d’Orsay which was to be a museum of decorative arts, which was never built.

[1:13] This was a commission that Rodin got, and when he had finished the design of the doors, he was ready to cast it, but then the project itself fell through. He kept working on it, and the sculpture continued to evolve.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] You do see so many figures that you recognize as standalone sculptures by Rodin, but the thing that strikes me most is how much the figures emerge from the “background” of the doors, and I said “background” in quotes.

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] And “the doors” should be in quotes.

Dr. Harris: [1:42] “The doors” should be in quotes, right.

Dr. Zucker: [1:43] Because they could never function anymore.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] It’s like the doors don’t even look like solid forms. They are like vapor from which these forms emerge and spill out into our space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] It’s almost as if we imagine the surface of those doors to be the surface of the ocean, waves coming forward, and these figures rising and then falling. There’s this constant sense of motion and undulation, form taking shape and then receding into indistinctness.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] Eternal becoming.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] The standalone figures that we’re seeing are tragic. We have Paolo and Francesca, Ugolino…

Dr. Harris: [2:20] The figures who Dante finds in hell being tortured and punished for their sins on earth.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] All the way at the top, instead of angels, we have three shades. These are figures that repeat, one figure that’s seen three times. Almost cinemagraphic, but creating a unified form, with shoulders that actually create a flat plateau, and three arms that pull our eye down into the gates themselves.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] I’m so reminded of Michelangelo when I look at all of these figures, and the expressive power of the body, especially the male body. Also, the way that some of the forms are fragmented reminds me of looking at ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] This is really modern reinvention of sculpture. Yes, clearly informed by Michelangelo, clearly informed by the classical, but this notion of the fragmented self re-used, reworking, very much a modern notion.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] The forms, although derived from the narrative of Dante’s “Inferno”, come to take on a more universal significance about the human condition, about suffering, sin, emotion, and the power of the body.

[3:26] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell," in Smarthistory, July 25, 2017, accessed June 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/auguste-rodin-the-gates-of-hell-2/.