The Influence of Bernini on Rodin: Capturing Movement

By Mary Williams

A comparison of the work that Rodin completes after his trip to Italy to the formal elements of Bernini’s sculpture reveals the ways in which Bernini informed Rodin’s development as an artist. The use of movement was important to both sculptors. Rodin stated,

“Art cannot exist without life. If a sculptor wishes to interpret joy, sorrow, any passion whatsoever, he will not be able to move us unless he first knows how to make the beings live which he evokes. For how could the joy or sorrow of an inert object—of a block of stone—affect us? Now the illusion of life is obtained in our art by good modeling and by movement.”[1]

Figure 13: Rodin, "St. John the Baptist Preaching," 1878, Paris, Musée d'Orsay (source-

Figure 13: Rodin, “St. John the Baptist Preaching,” 1878, Paris, Musée d’Orsay (source-

Rodin used movement to illustrate life in his sculpture. His earlier works were rigid and did not portray the motion Rodin later viewed as so important. After the trip to Italy however, Rodin began to create active sculptures. His sculpture St. John the Baptist Preaching was finished in 1878, three years after his trip to Italy (Figure 13). John the Baptist steps forward, preaching to a crowd. His mouth is open, and his hand reaches outwards as he points. Rodin has captured the saint in the action of preaching. In a similar way, Bernini’s David depicts the moment when David pulls back his slingshot and moves to strike Goliath (Figure 14). While traveling to Italy, Rodin was able to see the dramatic movement that characterized Bernini’s sculpture. As a result, Rodin incorporated more movement into his own work. Albert Elsen briefly mentions Bernini in relation to St. John the Baptist Preaching.

Figure 14: Bernini, "David," 1623-1624, Rome, Galleria Borghese (source-

Figure 14: Bernini, “David,” 1623-1624, Rome, Galleria Borghese (source-

Although Elsen primarily dismisses Bernini’s influence on Rodin, he makes a comparison between the bold movements of both sculptors work.[2] The relationship between the two figures movement was so significant, that a scholar who otherwise ignored the Baroque influence on Rodin, noticed the similarities.

Rodin’s St. John the Baptist compared to other sculptures of the saint in the nineteenth century, further emphasizes the significant movement Rodin used. The artist Josef Max created his St. John the Baptist for a bridge in Prague (Figure 15). Max and Rodin sculpted the same subject; however, the two represent the saint at different moments in time. Max’s Saint John is leaning slightly backwards, as the majority of the sculpture’s weight is placed on the back leg. Rodin’s work walks forward and reaches out to the viewer, while the sculpture by Max is leaning away from the audience. He is not moving and is as far removed from the viewers as he can be. The gesture of Max’s sculpture is different as well. In accordance with traditional images of St. John the Baptist, both figures point towards the heavens. Max’s work points outwards towards the distance in a grand gesture. The hand on Rodin’s St. John is more inviting. He points upwards, but he also invites the viewer to listen to him speak.

Figure 15: Josef Max, "St. John the Baptist," 1857, Prague, Charles Bridge (source-

Figure 15: Josef Max, “St. John the Baptist,” 1857, Prague, Charles Bridge (source-

With his St. John the Baptist Preaching, Rodin intended to depict life through movement and relationship with the viewer. Rodin saw Bernini’s sculpture during his time and Italy, and learned to express bold movement that engaged the viewer. Rodin took the skills he acquired from studying works by Bernini and integrated them to his own work. His new approach to movement allowed him to sculpt works that appeared to live and interact with their surroundings.

[1] Auguste Rodin, Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell, trans. Jacques de Caso and Patricia B. Sanders (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1984) 41.

[2] Elsen’s mention of the Baroque and Bernini’s sculpture in relation to St. John the Baptist is intriguing. Elsewhere in his work he only mentions the influence of the Renaissance, Gothic, and ancient periods of art.  Albert Elsen, Rodin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1963) 27.