In the past few days we’ve featured a series of remarkable little films of French artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Today we wrap things up with just one more: a rare glimpse of the great sculptor Auguste Rodin.
The footage was taken in 1915, two years before Rodin’s death. There are several sequences. The first shows the artist at the columned entrance to an unidentified structure, followed by a brief shot of him posing in a garden somewhere. The rest of the film, beginning at the 53-second mark, was clearly shot at the palatial, but dilapidated, Hôtel Biron, which Rodin was using as a studio and second home.
The mansion was built as a private residence in the early 18th century, and served as a Catholic school for girls from 1820 until about 1904, when it became illegal for public money to be used for religious education. When the last of the nuns cleared out, the rooms of the Hôtel Biron were rented out to a diverse group of people that included some notable artists: Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan, Henri Matisse and Rainer Maria Rilke, who served for a time as Rodin’s secretary. It was Rilke’s wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff Rilke, who first told Rodin about the place in 1909.
Rodin first rented four rooms on the main floor, but was alarmed when he learned of plans to sell the property off in pieces to developers. So he made a deal with the government: In exchange for bequeathing all his works to the French state, the sculptor was allowed to occupy the mansion for the rest of his life, and after he died, the estate would become the Musée Rodin.
By the time actor Sacha Guitry and his cameraman arrived to film this scene from Ceux de Chez Nous, or “Those of Our Land,” Rodin was the sole occupant of the Hôtel Biron. The film shows the 74-year-old artist walking down the weed-covered steps of the mansion and working inside, chipping away at a marble statue with a hammer and chisel. When Rodin was asked once about how he created his statues, he said, “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”