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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Beauford Delaney’s Balzac by Rodin

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

An interesting study in form and color, Balzac by Rodin is an oil painting Beauford completed circa 1968, which depicts a statue that Rodin made in memory of the French novelist, Honoré Balzac.

This painting is a beautiful exploration of color blocking and composition. In the foreground, Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac is in the center left. It is defined by thick lines of green and fushia pink, with occasional blobs of yellow dotting Balzac’s torso. Beauford’s view is lower than the sculpture; viewers are looking up at Balzac’s upturned face. Hills of solid green and orange ramble throughout the background of the painting underneath a pink-white sky with an amorphous blue form dotting the surface. Two trees flank Rodin’s sculpture, one of which bends slightly, giving the impression that this was painted on a windy day.

The subject of the painting is a curious choice. The history of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture is intriguing, not just in and of itself, but also for Rodin’s methods in creating a portrait. It is possible Beauford admired the work of art not just for its aesthetic attributes, but also for how it related to his own ideas of portraiture.

Balzac by Rodin
(ca. 1968) Oil on canvas
24 x 19 1/2 in (61x50 cm)
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
(Fair use claim)

Monument to Balzac is a sculpture Auguste Rodin created between 1892 and 1897 in memory of Balzac. The work of art was commissioned by the Société des Gens de Lettres in 1891, and Rodin was given 18 months to finish the project. Instead, he took seven years. The sculptor became enamored with the novelist and devoured all of his literature. He also extensively researched Balzac’s personality, an approach taken by the writer himself when developing characters for his novels. Rodin traveled to Balzac’s hometown and completed dozens of portrait studies to achieve the writer’s likeness.

Monument to Balzac, 1898
Musée Rodin, Paris
Photo by Beyond My Ken
Creative Commons License

However, by the end of the project in 1898, Rodin explained that likeness to his subject was not his ultimate goal. Through his readings, voyages and studies, Rodin set out to capture the inner essence, the persona, of Honoré Balzac, rather than physical likeness.

In a letter composed at the completion of the sculpture, Rodin said:

“The only thing I realize today is that the neck is too strong. Through the exaggerated neck I wanted to represent strength. I realize that the execution exceeded the idea.”

When the sculpture was presented at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, critics found it to be too grotesque and garish. Despite the backlash, Rodin’s contemporaries - Paul Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet - supported the artist and what he had set out to do.

Monument to Balzac is a symbol in art history for Rodin’s approach to portraiture. Creating a sculpture in Balzac’s image became less about capturing his features to a painstakingly accurate degree, and more about encapsulating the subject’s essence.

It is possible that Beauford painted Rodin’s sculpture because he saw it as an important icon in the Parisian landscape. More likely than not though, he appreciated and admired Rodin’s method of creating Balzac’s portrait. While Beauford never took seven years to extensively research the subjects of his own paintings, he had a strong point of view about how he wanted to portray those sitting for him. He cared less about depicting facial characteristics accurately, and more about making visible the subjects’ inner personalities and characters.

Beauford’s portraits were testaments of love to those he painted and drew - his friends, family, and public figures he admired. Auguste Rodin’s sculpture was in much the same way a declaration of admiration and appreciation for Honoré Balzac as an artist and person. In painting Balzac by Rodin, perhaps Beauford was expressing a kinship felt for his artistic predecessor and simultaneously paying homage to both Rodin and Balzac.

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