The Thinker stares over the lawn at a fashion model who is pouting for paparazzi. Beyond the garden, clouds of red, white and blue smoke rise from a political rally. Welcome to the Rodin Museum in Paris on the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin, creator of one of the world’s most famous sculptures – and no stranger to the forces of beauty and revolution.
French president François Hollande opened a blockbuster exhibition at the Grand Palais this week, the French mint has struck a commemorative €2 coin showing Rodin’s face next to the Thinker, and the French post office has issued a Rodin stamp. Exhibitions and events are planned worldwide, from the US to Australia.
“Rodin is the Michelangelo of France,” says the exhibition’s curator Catherine Chevillot. “He is the turning point from ancient to modern sculpture. Artists such as Antony Gormley say it all begins with Rodin.”
So now is a very good time to check out the work of the sculptor who gave us The Kiss and The Thinker, and to explore his world – the glittering, bohemian capital of the belle époque.
The Rodin Museum is a good place to start. It’s in the 18th-century Left Bank mansion where he worked at the height of his fame in 1900 and its elegant rooms are packed with statues exploring his favourite subject – human emotions, from love to fear, lust to loss. There are nudes everywhere: couples kissing, bodies entwining, women saying goodbye, men facing death. Such radical works brought Rodin both scandal and success in his time, and even today they are an emotional roller coaster.
Across the river at the Grand Palais, the centennial exhibition is showing 200 works by Rodin and 100 by artists he influenced, from Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti to contemporary German artist Georg Baselitz.
Beyond the Palais sits a belle époque showpiece, the spectacular opera house, amid the wide boulevards that in Rodin’s day transformed the city to its present grandeur. It’s a chocolate box of marble halls and gilded mirrors and private rooms where courtesans entertained – a world immortalised in Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel the Phanton of the Opera. The bronze statues on its grand staircase were made in the sculpture workshop where the young Rodin worked in the 1860s.
He was a man of simpler tastes, born in 1840 in the alleys of the Left Bank where discontent seethed. When he was eight, the revolutionaries of 1848 barricaded the Panthéon near his home. No wonder he was prepared to rethink art.
Today, the Latin Quarter is still a centre of the art world. On rue Bonaparte is the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the art school that rejected his early sculptures. He was left working as a jobbing craftsman, making statues for fountains and decorations for vases, but also free to pursue his vision.
A couple of streets away is a place all the artists frequented, La Palette. Regularly named the city’s best cafe and cited in Noël Riley Fitch’s 2012 book Literary Cafes of Paris, it has pavement tables packed with gallerists and students, a back room lined with paint-stained palettes, and a menu including wooden platters of cheese or ham.
Round the corner on the riverbank is a more sumptuous belle époque experience: restaurant Laperouse (two courses from €75), with a red velvet bar on the ground floor and, up the winding stairs, a maze of private dining rooms. Dinner here, where politicians have plotted and lovers met, is elegant and romantic.
There’s a more bohemian mood north of the river in Montmartre, at the last surviving artists’ cabaret. The Au Lapin Agile opened in 1860 and has hardly changed since. There are scuffed wooden tables, a battered piano and paintings cramming the walls. It was a favourite spot for artists and writers, and as Rodin moved to Montmartre in 1865, you can imagine him sitting here too, sipping homemade brandy and listening to chanteuses sing of hard lives and doomed loves late into the night.
I’m staying in the Latin Quarter, close to where Rodin grew up, at the Hotel des Grands Hommes in a period townhouse. My garret room looks onto the Panthéon, the national mausoleum, whose walls carry a tiny portrait of Rodin: he has an aquiline nose and a wild beard, his eyes fierce, his face determined. Behind the hotel is his teenage home, 6 rue des Fossés St Jacques, a narrow pale stone house above the green shutters of a shop.
A short walk away is a classic workers’ restaurant of the time, the Bouillon Racine. It has a fabulous interior of mirrored walls and art nouveau woodwork, painted in eau-de-nil like the metro signs. Today the cooking is superb and the two-course set lunch a steal at €17: I have suckling pig with parsnip mash followed by three tangy cheeses.
Rodin’s final home, Villa des Brillants in the south-western suburb of Meudon is a 20-minute RER train ride from central Paris, and open to the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Inside the simple red-brick villa are a dining table propped on trestles, a modest sitting room and a bright studio. The garden holds a huge pavilion of his works in plaster and the grave of Rodin and his wife. Above them broods the bronze figure of the Thinker.
Rodin met Rose Beuret when they were in their 20s, he an artisan, she a seamstress. In their 53 years together, she endured the endless affairs he had with models and admirers. Chief among these was Camille Claudel, a 19-year-old sculptor who became his muse and collaborator. The experience helped lift his work to greatness in the 1880s, but Rodin remained with Beuret until her death, two weeks after their eventual marriage. Claudel’s is one of the most tragic tales of la vie de bohème – she was to end her days in an asylum in 1943 – and a new museum of her work, Musée Camille Claudel, will open in her home town of Nogent-sur-Seine, an hour south-east of Paris, on 26 May. But there are plenty of reminders of her life in the city. At 117 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs is the house where she had a studio, and met Rodin when he stood in one day for her teacher. Claudel studied drawing two streets away on rue de la Grande Chaumière, at Académie Colarossi, where Paul Gauguin also studied.
It no longer exists, but two doors down is its rival, Académie de la Grande Chaumière, founded in 1904. There are drop-in life drawing classes here Monday-Friday in (from €19, grande-chaumiere.fr). I find a sketchpad and a pencil and stare at the model posing naked on a stage. It was in a situation like this that it all began, for Claudel and for Rodin: the artist’s attempt to capture the essential, stripped-down human being. I grip my pencil and start to draw.
• More information at rodin100.org. Travel to Paris was provided by Eurostar, which has returns from London St Pancras from £58. Accommodation was provided by Hotel des Grands Hommes (doubles from €157 B&B). Bouillon Racine has a set lunch at €17, 3 rue Racine, 75006 Paris, www.bouillonracine.com, tel 01 44 32 15 60. Academie de la Grande Chaumiere has drop-in classes every day, from €19, www.grande-chaumiere.fr.