The Poet and the Contemplative Life (The Fenaille Column)
Auguste Rodin ( French, 1840 - 1917 )
Auguste Rodin’s The Poet and the Contemplative Life combines a large number of human figures with allegorical elements, all of which seem to spring from architecture. This fusion of sculpture and architecture characterized Rodin's late career and has been linked to contemporary currents in European Symbolism. In fact, the roots of Rodin's fantasies go back further to Baroque sculpture.
Who is the poet whose mournful disembodied head rests atop the chaste capital on this riotous figural column? In all probability, the head is a symbol of "poetry" rather than a representation of a particular poet, although many of Rodin's contemporaries must have associated the work's appearance in 1897 with the death of Stéphane Mallarmé in 1896. The head is reminiscent of an earlier Rodin marble, entitled Thought (Musée Rodin, Paris), which was modeled on the well-known features of Camille Claudel, Rodin's model, mistress, student, colleague, and assistant. If the head signifies "poetry" as an intellectual or cerebral, rather than sensual, activity, Rodin contrasts this idea with the riot of human figures, symbols, passions, and allegorical forms that crowd together in the column below. In his insistence on separating the "body" of the column from the "head" by means of a stylized capital, Rodin suggests that poetry resides in the head itself, not in the body on which it rests, as a sculpture rests on a base.
Richard Brettell, Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas Museum of Art, 1995), 123.