Auguste Rodin
Pierre de Wissant, Monumental Nude

Auguste Rodin, France, 1840 - 1917, Pierre de Wissant, Monumental Nude, c.1886-87 (Coubertin Foundry, cast 1985), Paris, bronze, 215.0 x 100.0 x 60.0 cm; William Bowmore AO OBE Collection. Gift of the South Australian Government, assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

About this work of art

Inner turmoil contorts the face and form of Pierre de Wissant. The physicality of this striking work by Auguste Rodin, the father of modern sculpture, captures a moment of anxiety and anguish – an emotional drama expressed in emotionless bronze.

De Wissant is facing death. He is one of six leading citizens of the French city of Calais who, in 1347, are said to have offered themselves as a sacrifice to spare the people of their city besieged by the army of King Edward III of England. Barefoot and dressed in sackcloth, the rope of a noose slung over his neck, De Wissant anticipates his fate. Ultimately his heroism will be rewarded by a reprieve, but for now – forever in bronze – he is gripped by despair.

The figure of Pierre de Wissant forms part of Rodin’s major work The Burghers of Calais, commemorating the six brave citizens and commissioned by the city in the mid-1880s, when the artist was emerging as one of the most important sculptors in Europe.

Auguste Rodin’s rise to prominence, however, had been slow. Born in Paris in 1840 into a working-class family, he showed artistic talent from a young age, but was mostly self-taught because he was unable to gain entry to the popular art schools of the era.

Decades passed before he became acknowledged, a financially independent artist, largely because of his rejection of the established modes of sculptural expression. Rather than working in the rigid traditions of Greco-Roman marble sculpting, Rodin developed a technique to rapidly create informal sculptures of great vitality by working directly with clay. In clay, Rodin created sculptural sketches that could be cast in plaster, then scaled up by the highly-skilled sculptors he employed in his studio for his monumental bronze and marble works.

On his death in 1917, Rodin bequeathed to the French state his studio and the right to make casts from his works, and today the Musée Rodin in Paris continues to release small numbers of authentic works by the artist more than 100 years after his death. The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Pierre de Wissant was modelled by Rodin around 1886 and cast by the Coubertin Foundry in 1985 from Rodin’s original model.

The Art Gallery holds the largest collection of Rodin sculptures in the Southern Hemisphere, many of which are currently on display.

Audio description of the work of art

This imposing bronze sculpture was originally modelled in clay around 1886-87 in Paris. This specific bronze was cast at the Coubertin Foundry in 1985 from the original model by Rodin. It’s emotional content, dark polished surface and magnificent size make it a memorable work in the collection.

This piece was a study for one of the six councilmen in Rodin’s famous work The Burghers of Calais, a monument to an event in the Hundred Years’ War. In the later finished piece the men wear tattered sackcloth and ashes as they go to meet their doom. Dwarfing the average person this imposing sculpture stands 215cms tall by 100cms wide and 60cms deep.

A naked Pierre de Wissantis depicted, his lean gaunt frame propelled forward as if in anguish or pain. His face is a portrait of grief and distress. His left hip juts out at about 15 degrees so that the left leg can take the weight of the twisted torso. Flexed slightly at the elbow, his left arm dangles loosely by the side of his body, the hand is partially cupped, and fingers curled. His feet are about 50cms apart, the right heel is raised as if he is about to take a step, the toes gouge into a small hillock of earth, there is a well-defined large toenail. The whole right side of his body twists forwards, his chest turns to the left so that his bent right elbow is brought in front of his body. The forearm is raised as if to shield his face, the right fingers are loosely splayed. He leans forward through the hips, his neck straining to the right, stretched and taut, head forward. Both hands and feet are oversized.

His spine is deeply set in the hollow of his back, the arch of his rib cage is evident and as is the way the muscles lie beneath the skin and wrap around the bones. This body of flesh and bone looks vulnerable; his slender legs are thin and bony, as are the hips and buttocks. His ribs are visible under the flesh, the sinews and veins stand out on his legs and arms. Following the line of his shoulders, the chest turns to the left attempting to cover the exposure of belly button, abdominal muscles, and genitalia.

Tiny horizontal lines furrow the brow between and above his eyebrows, which are rigidly raised at the centre above the nose. The eyes are mere slits, downcast hollows. High cheekbones frame a broad broken nose that bends to the left at the bridge. A hollow below his nose leads to the grim clamp of his open mouth, set in a squarish jaw with a deep cleft chin. Cropped hair short exposes a right ear bigger than the left. The anguish on Pierre’s face is palpable.

At the heavy plinth like base his bare feet stagger on rugged uneven ground. The artist’s name A. Rodinis signed on the horizontal area of the base behind the left foot.