A Biography

By Frederic V. Grunfeld

Henry Holt. 738 pp. $35

IN 1907 Bernard Shaw was one of the many wealthy and famous who sat for a portrait sculpture by the 67-year-old Auguste Rodin. Shaw even wrote with suspect modesty that someday he expected to be remembered only as "subject of a bust by Rodin: otherwise unknown." Four years later Rodin's village of Meudon solicited a contribution to a local charity. "Do you want one of my statuettes or money?" he asked the town councilors.

"We prefer money, Monsieur Rodin."

Fame, which came late to Rodin, had already fled.

Forty before he was more than an ill-paid sculptor's helper in a state-owned porcelain factory, he had been a myopic, bearded, stocky designer of commercial pottery who worked in an old knitted vest, shapeless blue trousers and enormous, worn-out shoes. In his own work (as he would write of another sculptor) he had "committed the then-unpardonable crime of imparting life to stone through the vibration of the flesh; he modeled with suppleness and passion; the others modeled with a dead hand. They avenged themselves by accusing him of indecency."

A mass of paradoxes, he suffered from a lifelong failure to finish major works, yet he compulsively sought new commissions. An unpleasant genius, he let nothing, in his day of glory, interfere with self-gratification; yet because of his competition for monumental sculptures, no major artist was more subject to the suffocatingly inartistic limitations of civic committees. A man of no ideals, he was only a covert anti-Dreyfusard, running no risks of alienating patrons or politicians. Artistic self-interest compromised every other conviction.

During the lean years, living with frustration and disappointment, he had often been described as a sculptor of morceaux -- scraps. The accusation of trifling would never leave, and when, in 1909, in his 70th year, he persisted in producing ambiguously fragmentary figures -- "stumps of statues drawn from his bucket of clay," a critic called them -- they were seen not as designs a leap ahead of their time but as the work of a burnt-out artist who had repeated himself too often.

In the flourishing decades before Rodin outlived his colossal reputation, he was the artist against whom others were measured; his only rivals were Greeks of earlier millennia and Italians dead for centuries. Like them he preferred to sculpt nudes, even when he intended to clothe them with his clay at a further stage. "Later," he explained, "I have only to throw a cloth over {the figure} and everything vibrates at the points where it touches the body." It was the secret, he claimed, of the energy in his marbles and bronzes, but detractors saw an erotomania in his method, an obsessional quality in the product. Those who worked with him, Frederic Grunfeld writes, "agreed that much of his libido was sublimated into clay," and friends "spoke apologetically of his uncontrollable need to indulge his tactile sense, his passion for touching and caressing."

In the course of his work -- "Let us work, work; the rest is nothing," Rodin would say -- he would run his fingers over countless willing (and a few unwilling) bodies. "A woman undressing, what a glorious sight!" he exclaimed in the concluding chapter of his Cathedrales, and the women who served him as well as sat for him provide the spice that enlivens the later pages of Grunfeld's massive Life. Gwen John would have died for him, and, after his rejection of her, did: Camille Claudel, another pupil-mistress, was so crushed by abandonment that her brother, poet Paul Claudel, hid her in an insane asylum for 30 years. The Japanese actress Hanako (Ohta Hiso), posed painfully for hours at a time in what Rodin called "the dying attitude." The Countess Anna de Noailles, clad as much as he would permit, recalled his "imagining me naked," and being forced to fight for her dignity against his gaze; the Duchesse de Choiseul (ne'e Clair Coudert from New York), taking over his business as well as his bed, raised his prices as well as his appetite. When his friends finally forced him to throw her out, even The New York Times reported the end of her monopoly of Rodin.

Only Rose Beuret remained at the end, imperturbable and loyal, sharing what morsels of his life he permitted her, drudging for him without benefit of clergy since his earliest working days. He reciprocated her devotion only two weeks before her death in February, 1917, marrying her when both were mortally ill. In wartime austerity, without coal in winter, a witness recalled, the "poor old people . . . suffering from the cold . . . stayed in bed from morning to night, holding each other's hands from his bed to hers, as they talked of their life of hardship and their younger days. It was a quaintly original honeymoon."

Rodin himself hung on. In November, a visitor arrived on behalf of the French Academy and invited him at long last to present himself as a candidate for membership. Knowing little of what was going on around him, Rodin signed the application, but it was "too late for him to be elected an Immortal." The verdict would be pronounced elsewhere.

Whatever Rodin's artistic output, and its worth, his was the last great oeuvre in sculpture turned out by the factory system. Burghers of Calais, Thinkers and other memorable objects conceived by Rodin and visible in multiple "originals" worldwide felt little from Rodin's supple fingers. He worked largely in clay. A reducteur enlarged and cast the work in plaster; a mouleur then made a mold. Such practiciens -- sculptor's assistants as Rodin himself long had been -- earned few francs and less credit, whatever their talent, or even genius. At the ceremonies unveiling the Thinker to Rodin's greater glory, Henry Lebosse, who had enlarged the small clay figure into bronze magnificence, turned after the speechmaking to Rodin and complained, forlornly, "Yes, and not a word for me!"

"Well," Rodin snapped, "take your share of what's been said."

Are 635 pages of narrative too long for a warts-and-all biography enlivened only seldom by any wit or irony? Are litanies lavished upon the vicissitudes of a single controversial sculptor counter-productive? The answer, happily, is no: the facts of Rodin's life, work and personality contain, in compelling abundance, their own ironies. Overwhelming in detail, the book does not have the unflagging readability of Grunfeld's earlier Prophets Without Honour (1979), a collective biography of German-Jewish intellectuals before Hitler, but Rodin finally has a biography worthy of his achievement.

Stanley Weintraub, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, has edited the diaries of Bernard Shaw and written many books about 19th- and 20th-century art and literature.