RODIN, AND PARIS
Within a year, my mother decided to give up her life in America and devote herself to helping me in my artistic studies abroad. I had worked day and night trying to collect enough funds to pay for the steamer tickets, designing covers for sheetmusic and patterns for wallpapers and linoleums, and making pastel portraits of babies and young children. We sailed away with a letter of credit for one thousand dollars left to my mother in legacy by a thoughtful friend. In the good old days of 1910 we were able to travel through Italy and Switzerland, to Paris and London, establish ourselves in various studio and alcove apartments, and live in the student quarters of the rive gauche for fifteen months, on this thousand dollars.
"Tell Monsieur Rodin that if he does
not see me today I must return to America, but that I came to
Paris to study with him, and that I must deliver a message to
him from his friend Madame Simpson. I shall not leave, he must
admit me today."
As I gave him the messages, in my unconjugated French, from his friend across the seas, his grip tightened and he asked me why I had not mentioned her name at my first visit. I began to feel my blood move again in my veins. "So you were determined not to leave without seeing me" he said. I nodded. "What have you under your arm in that envelope?" he asked. "Oh, just two photographs of the only sculpture I have ever done, I am just a beginner but I find I cannot escape it. Sculpture seems to have taken possession of me and my desire is to be your pupil if you will be willing to guide me and criticize my work."
I stepped back once more to my place at the door, not daring to raise my eyes.
There was a murmur of surprise from the group of men. Rodin's voice suddenly rose in a tone of almost brutal abruptness, "Allons, au dé'jeuner, mes amis-il est tard." He showed his friends out of the door, turned towards me "Here," he said. "This is where my keys hang," and he lifted an old rag from a nail on the wall, on which hung two keys. "You may use them to open the other studios. Uncover all the work and examine the trays of plaster studies and I will see you when I return." He went out, closed the door and locked it from the outside. I had certainly not only been admitted at last to his studio, I was locked into it, for better or worse and I wasted no time wondering what it all meant, but started in at once to pull the linen shrouds off the marbles.
A new world seemed suddenly to engulf my imagination. When I had examined one room I went to the next and then to another and finally returned to where I had started and began making drawings of the small plaster hands of which there were thirty or forty in various positions lying in wooden trays. I worked so intently that I did not notice that the fire in the stove had gone out and that the studio had grown icy cold. I did realize quite definitely, however, that I was very hungry, for I had not had anything to eat since my cup of coffee at 7:30 A.M. and I suddenly noticed that it must be well into the afternoon as the winter light had begun to fade. I recovered all the marbles, and as I went over to try the door, hoping to be able to open it from the inside, I heard a knock. Wondering what I should do, I made no response, for if it were some visitor what would he think if I said I could not open the door? The knocking became louder and then a key turned in the lock and the door opened. Rodin came in and looked about. He caught sight of me behind one of the marble blocks. "Well," he said. "What have you done all this time? Why is everything covered over? Did you not examine the work or did you not like it, that you have covered everything again?"
I explained hastily that the sight of so
many of his groups was too much for me to cope with at one time,
and that although I had examined them all, I had recovered them
carefully and had concentrated my attention on the little plaster
hand which seemed to be more my size. I had made a few drawings
of this and he examined my sketch book. After looking through
it he said, "My child, do you think these are all drawings?"
"C'est leur sacrée facilité," he said, and then, going over to the stove, he realized how cold it had grown. The fire was out, and we were in semi-darkness. He came back and felt my hands; they were cold. He took off his heavy cloth cape and wrapped it about me and went to work remaking the fire. "Why did you let it go out?" he asked, and "Why do you look so pale and tired? By the way, did you have any lunch before coming to me at noon?"
"No, I had my coffee early but did not
expect to be able to stay here so long today, it has been a great
feast for a hungry artist, I shall never forget it."
I so it was that my studies with Rodin began. They continued for over a year, until I returned to America in 1911. As I was leaving for America, Rodin urged me to study anatomy by dissection. "We have no facilities for such study in Paris but through your doctor friends you may be able to find a way in America to make your own dissections." I asked Doctor George S. Huntington at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York to admit me to the laboratories as a student. The sights and smells so shocked me that my determination was almost destroyed. One day as I stood wavering, Doctor Huntington suddenly appeared, scalpel in hand, and said smiling, Well, well, Malvina, you look pretty green this morning , can it be That you regret having asked me to teach you how to dissect and learn the principles of anatomy?" His kindly blue eyes challenged me "Remember you are the only woman up here and medical students are likely to jeer at you if you give any signs of flunking."
My blood rushed up into my head again and I could feel the color back into my cheeks. Doctor Huntington led me to the operating table; I put on my rubber gloves, and he said, "Now watch me ; as I reveal to you the beautiful mechanism God built into our knees for you to see here the basic principles on which all bridges and levers are constructed."
The delicate accuracy of his technique (in spite of the fact that he had lost two or three of his fingers) was amazing. He turned his instruments over to me, and said he would return in two hours to see progress I had made. "Be careful," he said as he left, "these scalpel blades are sharp; don't cut those tissue-paper sheaths that hold all our muscles in place. Remember everything you will discover is beautiful and wonderful, then you'll be all right." What a teacher! sensibility and understanding he had for a cringing pupil, this man who spent his life searching for the hidden wonders of comparative anatomy and wading about in a gory laboratory from morning until evening!
After my first year, and by request of a group of artist friends, he was able to persuade Columbia University to open a special department of dissection and anatomy for artists. At first all the class attended enthusiastically, but gradually the numbers dwindled; the formaldehyde and grim surroundings were too repugnant for their eyes and nostrils.
A year later Mother and I went back to Paris and I continued my studies, dividing my time between night classes at the academy and working in my own studio. Each week I had a searching and constructive criticism from Rodin, sometimes drawing and sometimes watching him carve marble.
On Sunday morning I often went to the great studio of Rodin's home at Meudon, near Paris. He would show me the series of portrait heads in plaster, which he made while he was studying his sitters. Sometimes he would make six or seven different studies of the same person, varying slightly the pose of the head or the expression of the face. Frequently I knew him to start a portrait, and after a few sittings, to call in a plaster-caster and have a mould made as a record; then he would make a "squeeze," that is, the fresh clay would be pressed into the negative of the piece-mould and with this stage of the portrait safely registered, he would feel more free to make bold changes or experiments, without the fear of losing what had been achieved up to that point. The first plaster was a guide to which he could always refer if he felt himself in doubt during the subsequent sittings. He would hand me little plaster figures and ask me to cut off the arms and legs; then with white wax he would rearrange the groups, changing a gesture and adding action or some new suggestion of composition.
One incident which made a great impression
upon me took place at the entrance to the Rue de Varenne studio.
I was kept waiting a long. time for Rodin to arrive. I took two
small bits of clay and rolled them absentmindedly into two pieces
about five inches long. These I pressed together in my closed
hand, and studying the result was amazed to find that the pressure
of my fingers had clearly suggested the forms of two standing
figures. I added the two heads and was tapping the base on the
stone step to make it stand up, when
After carefully examining it from all sides, he said very seriously, "There is more in this than you understand at present. An accident, you say? Well, it is one of those accidents which one must catch and transform into science. You will keep this, and model this group one-half life-size and cut it in marble, but before you do it, you must study for five years. Will you promise to do this?"
"Yes," I answered, and wondered deeply how Rodin could see so clearly and decisively into the future. Eventually I carried out the idea and called it the "Column of Life."
Sometimes Sam would go to Meudon with me, taking his violin. Rodin would invite Rose Beuret to sit with him in the studio and listen to the music, after which she would bring us bowls of fruit, and milk and bread and butter. He told me, before presenting me to Rose, that she was "a violent nature, jealous, suspicious, but able to discriminate between falsehood and truth, like the primitives, and possessed of the power of eternal devotion. . . . You will be good friends, I know, but remember what I have said about her." His eyes glowed fiercely under his shaggy brows and then his face changed into a friendly smile.
It was years later, almost at the end of her life, that she became his wife, she who had been the 'shadow of the sun" as she described herself to me, since her eighteenth year. Her love of music was almost pathetic; tears often ran down her thin cheeks while she was listening, so starved was she for any such emotional relaxation, her life had been completely devoted to the service of her beloved master, first as his model, then as his cook and housekeeper, and as the mother of his son. At the end of her long life he finally decided to marry her legally. After a few weeks of supreme pride and happiness, Rose Beuret Rodin died, and now the great bronze figure of "The Thinker" broods over the tomb in the Meudon garden where Rodin and Rose lie side by side under a common slab of granite.
While studying the first stages of my profession from the practical point of view in Paris, I became increasingly aware of the importance of understanding the craft as well as the art of sculpture.
Under the guidance of Emanuel Rosales, the Italian sculptor, I was introduced to the complexities of chasing and finishing my own bronzes. I watched for many hours how his delft fingers controlled the metal tools and how he was able to clean the surface of a freshly cast statuette, never harming in any way the modeling or texture of the forms.
During my first visit to a French foundry, I was quite overwhelmed by all the stages of handling through which every piece of sculpture has to pass. I listened to the remarks of the workmen and became friendly with the foreman of each department, and these men very patiently explained to me what the workmen were doing and how to hold the tools so as to control them without damaging the metal. They would give me old pieces of twisted bronze to practice on, and I found it very exciting to be able to restore the surface to a smooth, even finish and have approved by the founders.
The casual remarks of these master craftsmen concerning other sculptors were a revelation to me. It seemed that very few of the artists ever took the trouble to visit the foundry and in fact during the years that I have visited foundries so frequently, I have seldom encountered a sculptor who showed any active interest in how his sculpture was reproduced in bronze.
It was about this time that I began to realize what a serious handicap it was for a woman to attempt competition with the men in the field f sculpture. There was absolutely no traditional credit given to a woman in this field of activity, and I felt convinced of the necessity of learning my profession from the very beginning, so as to be able to control the workmanship of the great number of craftsmen with whom I was to come in contact, both in France and America.
I remember very well that Mestrovic, the Yugoslav sculptor, said to when I first met him that the first thing I must do as a woman was to learn the principle's and technical side of my work better than most men, before I could start even, without the handicap of a preconceived idea that women were amateurs in art and generally took up sculpture as a diversion or a pastime. I wonder if the women in other professions, such as music and literature, have ever realized what a serious obstacle this femininity becomes in the field of sculpture and with good reason, for the work itself demands that we stand on our feet from morning until night, lifting heavy weights, bending iron, sawing wood, and building armatures; we must know how to use carpenters' tools and plumbers' tools, and be able to calculate the strains and necessary supports to build up the clay figures. These last are often treacherous and collapse at just the moment when we are enthusiastically bringing them to completion.
In July, 1914, I was in Surrey recuperating from a serious illness when I received three telegrams from Rodin asking me to supervise the installation of his exhibition at the Duke of Westminster's (Dorchester House) in London. I worked two days with the movers directing the placing of the marbles and bronzes, reinforcing myself at frequent intervals with brandy and raw eggs. John Tweed, the English sculptor, who was a friend of Rodin's, came on the second day and gave me his friendly co-operation, for there were several very opinionated ladies who felt it their duty or privilege to object to the manner in which I was placing the marbles. Tweed had a broken arm in a splint at the time, but his contagious smile cheered us on greatly.
On the morning of the day of the official
opening, when the Queen and her ladies of the court were to be
present, Rodin suddenly appeared with Comtesse Greffuhle from
Paris and asked if everything was in readiness. Luckily it was,
and I asked him to look over the installation in the presence
of the ladies who had been so convinced of my errors. He did
so and said everything was quite as it should be. This was a
most satisfactory reward for my efforts. When he left Dorchester
House, Rodin ordered a hansom cab, asked me to accompany him,
and told me to give the driver the address of the Leicester Gallery
where a small group of my own bronzes was being exhibited at
that time. I was indeed surprised that he had even remembered
this fact. I was very happy to go into my modest little exhibit
in the company of the great sculptor who could make such a beau
geste of moral encouragement to his American pupil.
In the afternoon the Rodin exhibit was opened by the Queen, the court was in official mourning because of the recent assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo. Mother and I managed to keep in the background during the reception. I remember we stayed in a little room with Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," watching the royal visitors from a curtained doorway.
A few weeks after our London experience, I was working at the Hotel Biron with Rodin, busily sorting and numbering the hundreds of drawings to be hung in his museum. He would pick up his pen and ink drawings, and turning them over slowly, would show me the old laundry bills on which they were drawn. Quietly, as if talking to himself, he would muse, "Ah, those wonderful, terrible years when I had no paper to draw on, when Rose would collect these old bills and bring them home to me, it would seem as if they registered my best efforts, my agonies, my ecstasies. . . Ah, youth, youth . . . the white flame burning . . . burning . . . day and night. . . ." For six weeks we arranged the bronzes and the marbles in their permanent positions on the ground floor of the building. One day a telegram from London was brought into the studio: "Consider risk too great to ship cases from Dorchester exhibit to Paris. Will hold until we receive your instructions." I translated this to Rodin, whose heavy brows frowned with anxious forebodings. "What can this mean?" he asked. "Go and consult the guardians and see what has happened."
War had been declared. Paris was aflame, soldiers were marching in the streets, excited groups were watching the billposters being put up on the walls surrounding Les Invalides.
I ran quickly back to Hotel 'Biron, stopping to call the plastercaster from his work to be ready to go at once with Rodin to Meudon in a motor which had been loaned to him for the day. I picked up the black velvet beret and the long cape and went into the garden room where I found Rodin sitting with his head in his hands. When he heard the news, he seemed to be shaken to the depths of his soul. "C'est la fin," he said, in a scarcely audible, husky voice. I helped him on with his cape, and as we passed his writing desk he stopped and picked up the first unbound edition of his book Les Cathédrales de France. "Give me a pen," he said. He leaned over the book and wrote in the fly4eaf with a shaking hand:
He said as he gave me the book, "Gardez
ce livre en sout'enir, vous m'avez dit une fois que les arbres
A few days after this a telegram was sent to Rodin from a government office ordering the immediate removal of all his work into the cellar of the Hotel Biron, as the building was to be used for a daynursery.
'This blow was one which shattered the faith and happiness of Rodin's last years. It was, as he said, "the beginning of the end, the crackingup of civilization", "qui n'est, aprè tout, qu'une couche de peinture qui s'en va quand la pluic tombe." The days spent with him during the following months were charged with tension and tragedy. My mother was ill, and destiny decided that I should leave Rodin and Paris and sculpture and take Mother back to America and do my share in the Red Cross in New York.
In the autumn of 1914 Rodin went to England. One morning while visiting a friend in London, he heard the military band as the British Tommies were marching past the house where he was living, on their way to Victoria Station. He left the breakfast table and went to the window, waving his napkin at the pinkchecked young Britishers. "Oh, my dear, dear boys!" he cried. "You are going over to fight with my French brothers, and to help them. What can I do to show my gratitude?" The tears coursed down his cheeks. He asked for a pencil, and wrote out a deed of gift to the British Government of every piece of his sculpture which had been exhibited at Dorchester House.
This collection is permanently shown at South Kensington Museum.
I never saw Rodin again, for he died in 1917,
and it was not until after the Armistice when Mons. Léonce
Bénédite, curator of the Luxembourg and of the
Musée Rodin, sent for me to come and help him reinstate
the collection after the war, that I was able to return to Europe.
I devoted two months to helping in the task of arranging the
vast collection, washing the marbles which had been covered with
dust for many years, sorting hundreds of drawings, and unpacking
the numberless boxes of antique carvings in ivory and dozens
of Greek terracottas and bronzes, Egyptian relief's and every
kind of Etruscan glass bowls and fragile, iridescent vases. Many
of these had lain in boxes so long, stored away in the chicken
houses and lofts on Rodin's property at Meudon, that when we
attempted to lift the howls, they crumbled into powder on the
cotton wool, unable to withstand the sudden pressure of the outer
air or of being touched.
It was in those impressionable years that I was thrown into the realm of Boutet de Monvel (Aine'), Max Blondat, MacMonnies and Paul Bartlett, Pavlowa, Nijinsky and Diaghileff's Ballet, Gertrude Stein and Matisse, Brancusi, Rosales, and Mabel Dodge (now Mrs. Tony Luhan of Taos, New Mexico). Meeting so many creative minds was very exciting. There were writers, musicians, sculptors, painters, an endless and colorful series of groups, opinions, and types. I was constantly amazed at the kindness shown me by the older artists. Some were always ready to advise and help me, while others gave me space to work in their studios. I began to sift them all into main classes, the "big people" and the "little people", those who counted and stood out from the crowd fearlessly and welcomed any combat, those who were part of the crowd and would never have the courage to navigate alone; those who were listed on every card catalogue, and those who had no number or category into which they could fit; the tame type and the savage, the conventionalized plodder and the instinctive primitive.
During my student years in Paris my mother made every effort to enable me to work steadily and without too many domestic distractions or anxieties. She knew all my friends and quickly endeared herself to them by her sympathy and quiet charm. Having been born and brought up for the first years of her life in Paris, French was like her native language. When my artist friends were sick she would go to see them and take them hotwater bags and medicines. I well recall how many visits she made, carrying baskets of fruit, to my little dancing model, Loulou, who was forced to spend many months in a hospital.
My mother's breadth of literary and musical
interests soon gathered many friends about us. In our modest
little studio there was always a piano, and many were the Bohemian
musical evenings that we enjoyed there.
From all these colorful experiences my senses derived great joy and satisfaction. These evenings seem to complete the picture of my long days of hard work with a delicious and almost sensuous delight. The contrast of such beauty intelligence, and luxury set off my stark little studio and the brutal, smoky atmosphere of the foundries.
There were very few events that I did not relate to my mother. Her understanding was so complete that I had no reason to dissimulate or hide anything from her My experiences often amazed and alarmed her, but she heard them to the end and then she would sigh and say: "One lives and learns but this new world of yours is all strange to me you must have your own weapons for your own warfare; in my youth such things never seemed to happen . or at least they were never spoken of." This eternal "bridge of sighs" between the generations! What our grandparents thought and did was accepted as law by our parents up to a certain point, but they in their turn found new codes and new hungers threatening their young existence There comes a tide for every oneof us, and each in our own cycle of evolution grasps desperately for whatever solution may save us from destruction and decay. When Nature starves for new life and new blood, we puny mortals can but follow her dictatorship. Our parents may strive to force their will or their love upon us, it is of no avail Youth, like a hunter, follows the fresh trail of the wilderness and no one may change his course.
Amidst the glamour and excitement of life there were frequent upheavals of sudden tragedies and violent emotional experiences. I found that in my old diary of 1910~11-12 a quotation from Nietzsche was often repeated:
Something predestined seemed to draw me constantly into the depths of life, and there I so often found sanguinary traces. On an old drawing of the picket fence that used to wall off the upper terra from the Butte de Montmartre, I made a row of hearts impaled upon the posts.
Under this I wrote: "Between joy and pain is only an interval of blasted ecstasy."
In these years of white intensity my health
began to give out under the strain. I became ill, and not daring
to confess how I felt, I resorted to brandy and raw eggs at frequent
intervals. It was under these conditions that I modeled my first
portrait of William Astor Chanler and Robert Bacon, at that time
the American ambassador to France.
In those days boarhunting was in full swing in the forest. One day we happened to come upon a hunting party just as the French horns were ringing their clarion calls through the forest. A white boar had been killed and the dogs and horsemen came rushing from all directions to the clearing where Mother and I, in our peasant equipage, had halted for a rest. With gallantry typical of the grand seigneur, the leading huntsman rode up to us and asked if we would like to join the party and return with them to his château of Montrésor and witness the ceremony of dividing the boar, inviting us to be guests at the hunt breakfast. We accepted with alacrity, and our own amusement at the way we must have appeared in our primitive cart, with the colossal white horse, helped to make the expedition informal and full of laughter. The Duc de Montrésor must have had a sense of humor to include us in the picture of his triumphant entry to the chateau courtyard, with the white boar carried on four spears ahead of us!
After a few weeks' holiday we returned to
Paris. We visited the château country en route, driving
our horse and cart from one town to the other and returning it
very regretfully to its owner at the end of our journey.
The first time I walked through Forty-third Street after my long absence abroad, I was to find its appearance transformed. I felt so utterly detached from reality when I saw the new buildings that I found it difficult to decide whether it was the past that really lived on in our minds or whether it was the present that had died.
When I looked at the place where our third-story window had been, and realized how my own destiny, past, present, and future, had been sealed and recorded in that room, and that no trace of any such place remained, I felt an uncanny sensation creep over me, something ghostly, an intangible "presentiment, that long shadow on the grass, indicative that suns go down, that darkness is about to pass.
Heads and Tales