A Dream of Egypt: Rodin’s Last Love
Auguste Rodin (1840 to 1917) transformed sculpture forever. His masterpieces include some of the most well-known images in all of art — including The Thinker and The Kiss. During his life, he drew inspiration from a wide range of sources. But as he turned to the second half of his life, it was the art of ancient Egypt that captivated him most.
To tell this story in striking detail and in-depth understanding, the Rodin Museum in Paris presented more than 400 objects in their magnificent exhibition Dream of Egypt. The objects represent both the artist’s personal collection of Egyptian artifacts as well as his work that best illustrates his love of the art from the civilization.
Dream of Egypt ran from 18 October 2022 to 5 March 2023. In those months, visitors were able to appreciate an under-discussed side of Rodin’s oeuvre. While his love for Graeco-Roman sculpture and Michelangelo’s Renaissance triumphs is well trodden territory, his late-in-life discovery of Egyptian artifacts is mostly unknown to the general art lover. This exhibition corrected that.
[What you can see in Louvre: the Michelangelo's Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave, Greco-Roman sculptures and the Egypt Department]
The stunning show was led by Bénédicte Garnier, the head of scientific operations for the Rodin collection. Her expertise has given us many insights into this singular sculptor, including work on the influence of ancient Greece on Rodin, and now she gives us another fascinating way to frame a large portion of the artist’s output.
But the exhibition also pointed to a time in art and European culture in general, an era defined by Egyptomania — a popular obsession with all things connected to haunted mummies hidden away in silent tombs, grand monuments rising out of the desert, and cryptic hieroglyphics that cover the walls of holy spaces unseen for thousands of years.
Egyptomania was not only an aesthetic fad, it came about because of a special set of circumstances that helped launch the modern world we know today.
But as enormous as that larger tale is, it is all contained in the immaculate work of an elder Rodin, toiling away in his studio to match the greatness he perceived in the work of Egyptian artisans working many millennia before him.
I had the pleasure to visit Dream of Egypt during its run at the Rodin Museum. To appreciate the exhibit and its place in reframing our understanding of such an important figure in art, let’s examine the context and history of Rodin’s love for Egypt. And of course, let’s take time to admire some of the most interesting pieces in the show.
1 - Rodin Discovers Egypt
Rodin’s sculpture boasts a wide range of influences over the course of his career, including the sculptors who populated the Classical World with marble gods and goddesses, the Medieval artisans that decorated Gothic cathedrals, and the Renaissance masters who reinvisioned what was waiting to be born out of marble.
That he would have encountered art from ancient Egypt should come as no surprise. By the second half of the 19th century, Egyptomania had fully taken over Europe. This was the result of forces that would continue shaping the world — including colonialism, international trade, and the rise of the modern museum.
While that story can veer into the very bleak, it is necessary background information to see why Egypt had such an impact on Rodin.
A - What is the Egyptomania of Europe?
Through the 19th and early 20th century, Egyptomania ran rampant throughout Europe. It saw popular tastes devour the artifacts and artworks that flowed from into the continent, and in turn, new works were inspired by these pieces.
The seeds of this craze were sown in the late 18th century with the campaigns of Napoleon. For his conquests abroad, he brought large numbers of scientists with him to study everything they found. His troops would then draw and copy what was seen in Egypt (stones, plants, animals...) and made an encyclopedia of what is the most culturally valuable, depending on the findings of his experts.
When artifacts from ancient Egypt began trickling in from his wars in the area, Europeans got hooked. But still, not much of the civilization was understood. It all seemed lost to time, trapped away in the hieroglyphics that would not give up their occult secrets.
That all changed in 1822, when Jean-François Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics, thanks to a copy of the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone, one of the artifacts brought to France by Napoleon, is a large stele (or slab monument) made out of granodiorite during the Greek reign over Egypt in 196 CE. Called the Ptolemaic dynasty, this Greek king made a declaration and had it carved into stele. The content of that decree is far less important than the way it was written. The Rosetta Stone repeats the decree three times, each time in a different language:
Demotic (a script derived from hieroglyphs)
This allowed researchers some hope that they might one day decipher hieroglyphs, because an understanding of ancient Greek had been preserved. The going was extremely slow at first, but eventually the stone gave up its secrets.
With Champollion’s decipherment, a serious and thorough study of the ancient civilization — called Egyptology — was born.
At this point, Egyptomania began in earnest, with all of Europe getting in on the trend. Paris stood at the center of the phenomenon, both from a scientific and artistic standpoint.
The impact of Egyptomania can be seen in art throughout the period. Orientalism — a style that featured extremely idealized visions of the Eastern world, including Egypt — was in vogue for much of the century. For a time it dominated the Academy. Master painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 to 1904) made their career mainly by using their academic approach to evoke scenes of the East conjured out of their colonial imagination. (Though not nearly as popular today, Gérôme was the most famous painting of his time.)
Much of this orientalist art has rightfully been criticized for both its condescension toward the people of the East and its depiction of a “fantasy” that never really existed. But the style and the artists who worked in it had a massive influence on the development of Western art.
Fine art was not the only place these images dominated. Sphinxes, scarabs, and all kinds of Egyptian motifs also made their way into the decorative arts, and they would continue to inspire designers in France through Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
The intensity of Egyptomania ebbed and flowed through the decades, and at the beginning of the 20th century, it again crested just as the Belle Époque was nearing its close.
B - Rodin: Lover of Ancient Sculpture
As pointed out before, by the time Rodin became an Egyptophile, he’d already taken in the achievements of other ancient civilizations — namely Greece and Rome.
At the time, it was not known that this classical sculpture was once painted. It’s monochromatic display, caused by erosion over the centuries, gives these works a certain restraint, something that many artists came to admire and even copy (consider the grisaille method meant to copy this look, as seen in Jan van Eyck’s Grisaille Diptych, c. 1420, at the Louvre).
This of course appealed to Rodin who studied these works obsessively as a younger artist. But by the time he found the works of ancient Egypt — with all their color — he fell in love.
In his earlier work, Rodin occasionally referred to Egypt and its styles, but this was mostly him digesting it second hand through the orientalist paintings that were so popular in his day. But near the end of the 1870s, something began to click for him, starting with his appreciation of Symbolism — a movement that rejected the stultifying air of naturalism and sought enormous themes with works of art that soared with confident grandiosity.
Sometime around 1890, Rodin's personal art collection became inundated with Egyptian artifacts. He gathered these items ravenously — acquiring more than 1,000 objects in a little over 20 years. (Rodin was quite the collector, with well over 6,000 total artifacts in his personal care.)
This act of collecting influenced the artist’s work at the time. You can see it in his sculpture and drawings — traces of the ancient Egyptian style being experimented with in a variety of ways. This can be overt, but also subtle. Eventually, the influence evened out, leaving behind a few core lessons for the sculptor. These included balancing the height of spiritual emotion and power with simple lines and form.
Surprisingly, the artist never made the relatively short trip to Egypt. Instead, he satisfied himself with sitting back, dreaming of the world that these artifacts might have come from. In this way, their influence is extremely personal, stylized, and idealized.
At his death in 1917, Rodin gave his enormous collection of art to the French government, in order to create a museum. The resulting Musée Rodin inherited his tremendous Egyptian artifacts, making it possible to tell the story of his growing fascination with the civilization more than 100 years later.
2 - Examples of Rodin’s Egyptian Art
In The Creator, you can see how Rodin employed these lessons from ancient Egyptian artists. Here, we see a spirit whispering into the ear of a bearded artist — quite likely a stand-in for Rodin himself.
The articulation of the bodies in relief harkens to the Egyptian reliefs also on display in the exhibit. In the Egyptian relief, we see priests for the god Ptah (the ultimate creator god in later forms of Egyptian mythology) walking in a line.
By comparing these two artworks, we get a sense of Rodin learning how to eliminate perspective but still achieve a vibrant scene that can draw in the viewer.
It should be noted that the artist also combines influences from the Romanesque and Gothic artists of the Middle Ages, But above all, it is the Egyptian style that comes through.
Of course, there is also the unmistakable hand of Rodin at work. See the way he forms the beard with a seemingly impossible balance of essence and eccentricity. The composition of the scene and the poses of the characters is also indicative of the artist’s unique and individual genius. The strangeness of the visitor’s position — as if she is swimming through the air — brings a dream-like fantasy to the entire vision.
That added element of Rodin’s remarkable sense of bodies in space livens up this exhibition. And because he is able to see the true brilliance in the artists of a different time, we are able to appreciate them that much more.
3-The impact of Dream of Egypt
Dream of Egypt represents generations of study. Over time, the Rodin Museum has brought together many stakeholders to fully make use of and understand the enormous collection of Egyptian artifacts the artist left behind. This includes the Louvre, Paris-Sorbonne University Center for Research in Egyptology, Paris Nanterre University, and more — not to mention the long list of leading researchers who personally contributed to this effort.
Study began on these pieces as far back as the 1950s. Today, this ongoing Egyptological side of Rodin Museum’s mission is a major undertaking.
The exhibition reminded me of how much Egyptian art has come to shape French (and especially Parisian) art. Rodin is a prime example, showing how artists can recognize each other across millennia. He found something in these incredibly ancient works that spoke so clearly despite the eon that separated him from its moment of creation.
Art is a language that needs no decipherment — it speaks across time and space, from one human to another. And when you are seeing something by a great artist, like Rodin or a sculptor from ancient Egypt, it speaks more clearly than words ever could.
Giving tours of the Rodin Museum, I find it interesting how this one artist can still have so much to say and to teach. How lucky we are to have such a well run institution to preserve his legacy and continue to bring us new lessons from it.
Our tours in Paris
1 - Rodin Museum tour
If you are as fascinated by Modern Art in Paris and especially Rodin’s work as I am, consider taking a tour of Paris Rodin museum with me or my trusted colleague on your next trip to Paris.
We work in a team of specialized tour guides. Each one of us has mastered a topic and can do a tailor-made tour around your interests. One of my colleagues has mastered Rodin's museum and Rodinism Art in D'Orsay, if you are interested in knwoing more about Rodin's life philosophy, his Art, his struggle, his innovation and entrepreneurship, his different techniques and influences.
Our schedule fills up quickly, so you will need to plan ahead. But if you do, there is so much to learn and enjoy at this magnificent museum at the historic Hôtel Biron.