IN PARIS in the decades that framed the turn of the century, Auguste Rodin was one of the central figures in the artistic and intellectual circles that gave the French capital its extraordinary brilliance. And he was particularly close to many of the period's most distinguished musicians.
In 1910, when Gustav Mahler visited Paris for the last time, Rodin became fascinated with the great Austrian composer-conductor. Mahler's widow, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, wrote in her autobiography: "In April, we sailed for Paris. Our last visit there had been wonderful, thanks to my stepfather (the painter-sculptor Carl Moll), who had ordered a portrait bust of Mahler from Auguste Rodin. Our friend Sophie Clemenceau had arranged it as if the idea had been Rodin's because of his interest in Mahler's head. Mahler, despite a few lingering suspicions, believed it and consented to sit, which he would never have done under other circumstances.
"The sittings thrilled me. Rodin fell in love with his model; he called Mahler's head a composite of Franklin, Frederick the Great, and Mozart. His technique was unlike that of all other sculptors I have had a chance to watch." (As the daughter of one of Vienna's leading painters, Alma Schindler had had the chance to watch many artists in the Austrial capital in her youth.)
"He began with large planes, shaped approximately like the model, and then he laid on clay, of which he kept rubbing tiny balls in his fingers. In other words, he did not carve out of the rough clay but modeled over it. When we had left, he smoothed out the new rough spots, and at the next sitting he continued laying on. I hardly ever saw a tool in his hand.
"When we finally had to leave Paris, Rodin was quite unhappy. He would have liked to keep on modeling Mahler forever." Mahler died almost exactly one year after sitting for Rodin. In 1931 Alma gave the portrait bust to the Vienna State Opera -- which Mahler ran for almost a decade -- on the 20th anniversary of his death. After World War II, having escaped the war unharmed even though the Opera House was bombed, it was restored to its former place in the foyer. The Rodin Museum in Paris has three busts of Mahler, one each in bronze, plaster, and marble. Rodin said that the one in marble, done after Mahler's death, resembled Mozart.
Robert Godet, one of the prominent Parisian arts critics (who was also for a time foreign political editor of LE TEMPS was an intimate friend of Claude Debussy, Rodin, the Ernests -- Bloch and Ansermet -- and many others who he labeled as "the most brilliant figures in the arts." Godet said that any or all of them could be found regularly at the home of composer Ernest Chausson. It was the era of the composers Cesar Franck, Gabriel Faure, Erik Satie, Vincent d'Indy, Renaldo Hahn, Isaac Albeniz, and Camille Saint-Saens. Among the painters there would be Renoir and Manet, while the writers included Zola and Proust, Gide, Colette, Daudet, and Mallarme, one of the founding triumvirate of impressionism. The young stellar performers who played or sang in the elegant salons included the sensational Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, Victor Maurel, the most celebrated Verdi baritone of the age, the pianist Alfred Cortot, and the violinist Jacques Thibaud. And always there was Rodin whose sculpture made him an electrifying figure for "tout Paris."
In the early 1890s Rodin and Debussy were rivals for the attentions of the gifted sculptor, Camille Claudel, sister of the poet-diplomat Paul. While Rodin won, succeeding in making her his mistress, it was to Debussy that Claudel gave her 1893 sculpture entitled "La Valse." This work, which was strongly influenced by Rodin, remained in Debussy's mantelpiece throughout his life.
In February 1897, when Rodin and Debussy gave a dinner for Mallarme in honor of the publication of his "Les Divagtions," Rodin spoke in praise of the poet in what Debussy called an "awkward manner."
On the tenth of June 1899, Chausson went for a ride on his bicycle, something he did almost every day. On a steep hill he had traveled many times, he lost control of his bike and smashed into a wall. He was killed instantly at the age of 44. His funeral procession was the artistic forerunner of the assemblage of world eladers who would gather in 1910 for the funeral of Edward VII. Rodin was joined in it by his fellow sculptors Charpentier and Lenoir, and many others of those with whom he had so often shared the Chausson hospitality.
Rodin's fame also won him a place in the literature of the time. Camille Mauclair's novel, "Le soleil des morts," presents, under fictitious names, Rodin, Whistler, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, d'Indy, Chausson, and others in that starry circle.
Rodin, whose work was frequently censured for its erotic aspects, burst into angry print in 1912 following the outcry that arose against the eroticism of Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography of Debussy's "L'apres-midi d'un faun," when it was danced at the Theatre du Chatelet. While the greater part of his long article in Le Matin dealt primarily with Nijinsky and the dance, Rodin concluded, "I should like to see this noble effort wholly appreciated. Besides these gala performances the Theatre du Chatelet should organize others which all artists should attend in order to commune with the presence of beauty."