Paris on the Parkway

There’s something about quality that will not be denied. As the new Barnes Art Museum recently opened to great fanfare on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, you couldn’t help noticing the petite Rodin Museum next door, waking up, rubbing the sand from its eyes.

A close cousin of the Musee Rodin in Paris, this crown jewel of the Parkway had seen better days. The fountain and pool were never working, plantings and grounds were shabby, Rodin’s monumental bronze entry piece,“The Gates of Hell” with its writhing figures, was blackened and dull. Still, unmistakably, there stood a beautifully proportioned, limestone treasure.

“The Burghers of Calais”
Auguste Rodin
Photo: Joe Mikuliak

M2_Burghers with foreground

“Lifting the veil – “The Burghers of Calais”
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

The Burghers of Calais has left the building, finally restored to its original outdoor location, after being held captive indoors since 1955. A glowing white marble copy of Rodin’s famous Kiss will replace it, emerging from a plywood shipping crate to take center stage in the vaulted, skylit main gallery. As if emanating daylight from within, the Kiss will be a stunning apparition. True, labels will have to explain that it’s not the real Kiss. But it was commissioned by Jules E. Mastbaum, the founder himself, and is a genuine part of the museum’s history, contends Ms. Jennifer Thompson, associate curator.

Jules E. Mastbaum (1872-1926) gave the City of Philadelphia the enduring gift of an exceptional art museum and its collection, the completion of which he did not live to see


Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

M4_Rodin Museum Front Elevation

The Rodin Museum c. 1929-1930
Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paul Cret and Jacques Greber, French Neoclassicist architects working in Philadelphia, designed the Rodin Museum for theater magnate and philanthropist Jules E. Mastbaum. Cret had finished up the Barnes Museum in Merion in 1926 and began the Rodin Museum that same year. Nice work when you can get it.


“The Fountain Restored”
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Originally open to the public in 1929 and dedicated solely to the work of the great sculptor Auguste Rodin, the museum is experiencing a rebirth now in 2012. Perhaps it is rivaled, artistically, only by the comprehensive Musee Rodin (Paris and Meudon). Rodin donated the entire contents of his studio to the French State, now housed at the Musee Rodin.

Jennifer Thompson details, “The Rodin Museum (Philadelphia) has unique holdings including a large number of rare plaster casts, the first ever bronze cast of The Gates of Hell, and the only known bronze casts of works such as Two Hands, The Hand of the Devil, Shame (Absolution), Thought, and the Apotheosis of Victor Hugo. Its bronzes are of a very high quality, having been cast by the Alexis Rudier foundry only a few years after Rodin’s death. It’s the only other single focus, monographic Rodin collection in the world.”


“The Shade”
Auguste Rodin
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012


The “pay-as-you-wish” Rodin Museum reopens to the public on July 13th after three years and a $10 million, top to bottom renovation largely funded by its owner, the City of Philadelphia.

M7_Central Gallery

“Renovations – Main Gallery”
Photos: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Jennifer Thompson and senior curator Joseph Rishel must be having a field day with this project. Referring to the renovation (both interior and exterior) she says, “What’s unique is that it’s the entire site. The building had to be completely emptied, a completely clean slate. It’s an opportunity to be able to rethink the collection.”


Auguste Rodin
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Whereas small galleries off the main space used to exhibit more random groupings of sculptures, this restoration brings a fresh intelligence to the presentation. One gallery room will focus on Rodin’s virtuosic Balzac, another on Rodin’s public monuments submitted as competition entries and yet another on the The Gates of Hell, Rodin’s magnum opus developed over 37 years, not quite finished when he died in 1917.


Foreground: “The Martyr”
Background (small gallery at northeast corner): “The Call To Arms”
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012


Auguste Rodin

Some of the exhibits will change over time with new thematic links and juxtapositions to keep you coming back to this small but very satisfying museum. Rather than rely on traditional, text-heavy labeling, Thompson has established layers of information she refers to, conceptually, as “Skim, Swim and Dive.” Visitors may “skim” modest labels attached to sculptures or “swim” with mobile phone apps that supply additional information and supporting images or “dive” into Rodin’s life and oeuvre via a richly developed website.


“The Benedictions”
Auguste Rodin
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

To truly understand, though, you must study the vigorous terrain of these works in person, in the round as intended and created by Rodin. Look at the head of Balzac or Head of Sorrow (Joan of Arc) up close. Walk around them as you imagine Rodin’s expert hands swiftly animating deep handfuls of inert, wet clay, gouging, pushing and pulling, exhorting the forms to life!

M12_Balzac detail

Auguste Rodin
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

M_13 Joan of Arc

“Head of Sorrow” (Joan of Arc)
Auguste Rodin
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Curator Thompson says that in the 20th century Rodin’s influence was directly transmitted through sculptors like Maillol and Brancusi (who worked for Rodin). “When you get to the 21st century, I’m struck by how many younger people are taken by Rodin, moved by him. It’s so much about emotion. You don’t need to know the classics. Rodin’s work is a great source of human connection.”

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia.

Photo of Auguste Rodin: Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

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