Influence of Bernini on Rodin: Rejecting the Baroque

By Mary Williams


Scholar’s dismissal of Bernini’s influence on Rodin appears to be a result of the critics’ and art historians’ rejection of Baroque art. Distaste for the Baroque arts can be seen as early as the eighteenth century. Johann Joachim Winckelmann described Bernini as the “destroyer of art” in one of his essays. Balance, line, and symmetry were the defining characteristics of beauty according to Winckelmann, and Bernini’s sculpture defied each of the beautiful aspects.[1] After the writings of Winckelmann, people began to associate Baroque arts with decadence and a decline in significant art.[2]

The negative attitude towards the Baroque period diminished in the nineteenth century with the art historian Jacob Burckhardt, who interpreted the Baroque as a period worth studying and attempted to define its characteristics. Burckhardt described the Baroque style as decadent and full of arbitrary detail.[3]  Heinrich Wöfflin later defined the Baroque in terms of its relationship to the Renaissance. Wöfflin’s work no longer used the derogatory descriptions of Winckelmann or Burckhardt; however, he described the Baroque as “overwhelming.” In his work Renaissance and Baroque Wöfflin claimed, “Renaissance is the art of calm and beauty…Baroque aims at a different affect. It wants to carry us away with the force of its impact, immediate and overwhelming…This momentary impact of baroque is powerful, but soon leaves us with a sense of desolation.”[4] To Wöfflin, the impact of the Baroque is fleeting. It does not convey the lasting stillness of the Renaissance. The art historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to define the Baroque period and explain its characteristics. Although the scholars developed considerable theories on the period’s art and architecture, their descriptions remained influenced by the previous disparaging connotation of Baroque.

Figure 5: Pablo Picasso, "Still Life with a Bottle of Rum," 1911, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (source-

Figure 5: Pablo Picasso, “Still Life with a Bottle of Rum,” 1911, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (source-

The twentieth century marked new developments in art theory and style. The rise of modern art and architecture began to promote the abstract form rather than realistic representation.[5] It was during this period that Albert Elsen, Judith Cladel, and others authored their biographies on Rodin.[6] Given the frequent rejection by artists and critics of realistic representation, Bernini’s work, and consequently his influence on Rodin, would not have been recognized as significant. With modern art, artists began to use shape, color and line in their basic forms to convey meaning and bring truth to art.  As Cubist painter Pablo Picasso explained, “We give to form and color all their individual significance, as far as we can see it; in our subjects, we keep the joy of discovery, the pleasure of the unexpected; our subject itself must be a source of interest.”[7] Cubist artwork celebrated shape as a form of expression. Picasso’s Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, exemplifies the use of geometric shape to express emotion (Figure 5). The triangles, squares, and fragmented shapes create a sense of movement. In Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, Picasso highlighted the basic forms and materials used to create the work. Alternatively, Bernini attempted to disguise his medium by turning marble into flesh as seen in the work Pluto and Persephone (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Bernini, "Pluto and Persephone," 1622-1623, Rome, Borghese Gallery (source-

Figure 6: Bernini, “Pluto and Persephone,” 1622-1623, Rome, Borghese Gallery (source-

Bernini’s attempt to capture the indentations a hand grasping a leg would make was considered a form of dishonesty to many modern artists. The painters and sculptors of the twentieth century wanted to expose truth in art and emotion and they sought to expose it through geometric forms, colors, and materials.

Figure 7: Adolf Loos, "Scheu House," 1912-1913, Vienna, Austria (source-

Figure 7: Adolf Loos, “Scheu House,” 1912-1913, Vienna, Austria (source-

Architects also saw the beauty of basic forms and materials. Modern architecture was characterized by truth to material and simplicity without ornament. Adolf Loos, an architect in Vienna, designed austere houses of reinforced concrete. His house Scheu House exhibits the cube shape houses that Loos was known for (Figure 7). He does not include any external ornament because his focus was on the function of the building. Loos wrote an article titled “Ornament and Crime” that explained, “I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornaments from utilitarian objects.”[8] Loos thought any person who tried to hold on to ornamental decoration was holding society back. His views on architecture starkly contrast the Baroque architecture that was considered elaborate and decadent. Bernini’s architecture, such as the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, would have been dismissed in the context of twentieth-century architecture (Figure 8).

Twentieth-century sculpture had an effect on Bernini’s reception as well. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi exemplifies the differences between Baroque and modern sculpture. Similarly to other

Figure 8: Bernini, "Sant'Andrea Quirinale," 1670, Rome, Italy (source-

Figure 8: Bernini, “Sant’Andrea Quirinale,” 1670, Rome, Italy (source-

modern artists, Brancusi used simplistic, geometric forms to illustrate emotion and movement. His bust, Mlle Pogany, with its oval head and cylindrical arms reduces the figure to clear geometry, and yet the work articulates the essence of the woman (Figure 9).[9] Bernini attempted to achieve realism and drama in his work, while Brancusi chose simplicity

Figure 9: Constantin Brancusi, "Mademoiselle Pognay," 1912, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art (source-

Figure 9: Constantin Brancusi, “Mademoiselle Pognay,” 1912, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art (source-

and function of form. The sculpture, architecture, and painting of the twentieth century were in distinct opposition to the Baroque. Considering the prevailing artistic styles and theories during the completion of Rodin’s biographies, it is apparent that scholars would not have considered Bernini an important influence. Despite scholars’ rejection of Bernini’s significance, Rodin’s sculpture illustrates the relationship between the two sculptors.

[1] Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “Essay on the Capacity for the Sentiment for the Beautiful in Art,” in Essays on the Philosophy and History of Art, vol. 1, trans. Curtis Bowman and Henry Fuseli (NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005) 259-260.

[2] Helen Hills, Rethinking the Baroque (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011) 16-17.

[3] Jacob Burckhardt, Der Cicerone:Anleitung Zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens (Leipzig: Verlag von E. A. Seeman, 1898) 490.

[4] Heinrich Wöfflin, Renaissance and Baroque, trans. Kathrin Simon (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966) 38.

[5] The following work provides an excellent overview of the progression towards modern and abstract art. H.H. Arnason and Elizabeth C. Mansfield, The History of Modern Art (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2010).

[6] The primary biographies on Rodin were written during the 1930s to the 1960s, and as a result were written during a time of various styles in modern art.

[7] Pablo Picasso, “Pablo Picasso, Statement, 1923,” in Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968) 262.

[8] Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, ed. Adolf Opel (Ariadne Press, 1998) 168.

[9] Eric Shanes, Constantin Brancusi (NY: Abbeville Press, 1989) 60-62.