Editor’s Note: Oliver, the author of this piece, spent his summer performing x-ray fluorescence analysis of the posthumous Rodin bronzes in Cantor’s collection to study how the alloy composition varied over time and casting foundry. His work was performed in collaboration with the NU-Access program.
Spending so much time with Rodin this summer, I’ve found myself growing attached to his pieces. As if somehow Bellona (1879) or the Bust of Victor Hugo (1897) have become my friends. I know so much about them: the year and city they were born, where they grew up, how they were treated, their good side, their bad side, and every side in-between. In fact, over the course of analyzing his bronzes, I’ve created a system to get to know each piece inside and out.
Here I’ll take you through that process in 8 steps. If you ever find yourself at the museum, you can try them too (at least up to step 5)!
- Dig up the basics: Title, Date, Location – This can sometimes be as easy as looking at a placard, but often times, it requires playing a bit of detective. While the title isn’t inscribed on a sculpture, the foundry of origin and the date sometimes are. I often circle a piece multiple times looking for the foundry stamp and authorization inscription by the Musée Rodin for this information. For the title, or if I can’t find these inscriptions, I have to do some investigating. By looking through our catalogue, Rodin’s Art : The Rodin Collection (2003) by Albert E. Elsen, and the Musée Rodin’s catalogue, The Bronzes of Rodin (2007) by Antoinette le Normand-Romain, I can often put the pieces together. Some sculptures haven’t been well documented though, and these are actually the most interesting. Who knows what we might discover as we look more and more into them.
- Peruse its Family Tree – One of the most interesting things that can often tell us a lot about how an artist worked, is by looking at a piece in relation to other pieces. In Rodin’s case, we often see that certain pieces are taken from larger ones – for example, The Falling Man is one component from The Gates of Hell. Through an innovative technique for reducing and enlarging sculptures, many of his pieces also exist in different sizes and mediums (more information on that process here). By looking at these related and separate pieces, I can get a better idea of the detail and context from which a piece came.
- Study up on its history – This step is always the most time consuming or frustrating. It’s all about finding everything you can on the piece – from its most basic provenance to the complex relationship between the foundry and Rodin at the time. This is often where I get most held up at. It consists of looking through catalogues, archives, documentation, biographies, textbooks, newspaper articles, and anything else I can get my hands on. Doing this can often times explain unusual findings – maybe a foundry was experimenting at the time with a new supplier; perhaps it was in financial ruins; or maybe a museum mismarked something. We can often find explanations for why art is the way it is just by looking at the circumstances from which it was produced.
- Assess its condition – Working in The Cantor Arts Center’s conservation lab, I have learned to look at a piece as it is, as it potentially once was, and as what it may be in the upcoming years. Looking at its condition for my project is particularly valuable in that it makes sure I am aware of repairs, re-patinations, waxings, and treatments that have over the years effected the surface.
- Optional: Get to know the sculptures.
- Alloy Analysis using XRF – This is where I start looking at the actual material of the objects. I do this by collecting data using XRF across the surface of each piece to determine the chemical makeup of the patina and bronze beneath. XRF is a noninvasive technique for determining chemical makeup (for more information click here). This step often feels more like maneuverability then anything else.
- Investigate its Base – When possible, I then take a look at a piece’s base. It often distinguishes the color of the patina and allows me to see the thickness of the bronze. On the inside, I can also see seams where pieces of bronze have been welded together that have been so masterfully blended on the surface to not appear present, bits of plaster that have hung onto the inside for decades, inscribed signatures, and most importantly, the shiny bronze without patina. Using this information, I can start to assess and hypothesize the casting method and technique used to create a piece. Performing XRF on the bare bronze also provides a reading that doesn’t include the chemicals in the patina, which is particularly valuable considering my interest in alloy composition.
- Analyze and Compare – The bulk of truly understanding any art piece is understanding how it fits into the artist’s body of work. In my case, I’m interested in looking at how the alloy composition differs between sculptures and why that may be. Do bronzes cluster by foundry? By decade? By patina color? By casting method? By showcase location? Part of the fun of looking at so many pieces and spending so much time with them, is that I get the chance to think through these questions and come up with new ones!
And that’s all it takes. For me, this process is all about reminding me that what I am looking at isn’t just art and isn’t just metal. Each sculpture is a bit of history with hidden clues; I’m just out there trying to uncover them.