Truly, A Pleasure Garden
We came away enchanted. We visited Musee Rodin to see sculpture but were pulled in by the garden. It’s a formal oasis hidden away from the avenues. With a twist. Yes, we’ve admired sculpture in other gardens, but here, in seven acres, the landscape becomes a leafy foil for Rodin’s enduring art.
As we looked south from our perch high in the Hotel Biron, out over the great velvet lawn, the gardens embroidering its edges became models in miniature, formal, virtual mirror images of each other. (Can you spot the elderberries blooming white on either side?) Beyond, to the east, unseen, is a copse where massive Rodin statues reveal themselves to visitors.
We had just strolled the gardens, so we knew how they had caressed us.
Leafy glades beckoned us with plants we recognized and some we did not.
Among them, placed in clearings, or around the pond, were the bronzes we had come to see.
In the serenity of the setting we could wander and study without the elbow-bumping distractions of a crowded museum.
North of the Hotel Biron we found some of Rodin’s finest work set among formal rose gardens and clipped evergreens: The Thinker, Adam, Eve, The Burghers of Calais, The Shades, and The Gates of Hell.
Evolution of the Artist
Rodin was born in 1840, the same year as Monet, and a contemporary of other Impressonists. Despite obvious talent, he was frustrated by undiagnosed nearsightedness and given little encouragement except by his father.
With limited vision, literally and figuratively, he supported himself as an assistant sculptor of decorative features on public buildings during urban renewal in Paris.
This was about to change during a trip to Italy when he was 35.
He discovered Michelangelo and he never looked back.
He spent the next 25 years leading a life of slender means as a sculptor.
He rejected the classic and the ideal in favor of realism (too stark, said some) and sensuality (too decadent, said others).
A coterie of nude models roamed freely in his studio, which gave him an intimate understanding of movement and design in the human body.
Among the first of these was a pretty but feisty seamstress and artist’s model, Rose Beuret. She had come to Paris to find a new life.
Despite Rodin’s rejection of marriage, his frequent dalliances, and his tumultuous liaison with sculptor Camille Claudel, she was his muse and would bear his son and remain a lifelong partner.
In 1900, at age 60, his life changed again after he mounted an independent exhibition.
Suddenly, this almost reclusive sculptor became rich and famous and loquacious and in demand, though the sensuality of his work and the decadence of his life still offended many.
During the last ten years of his life, Rodin lobbied long and hard for a museum devoted to his work at the Hotel Biron, where he and others had studios.
In 1916 Rodin donated his entire oeuvre to the state in three separate installments.
In 1917 he died, probably of pneumonia resulting from influenza.
Only months before, he had finally married Rose, who, sadly, had died two weeks after the marriage.
In 1919 the museum opened.
Rodin produced a monumental collection of works during his lifetime.
Only twenty-five of his best known works are exhibited in the garden, but the museum has catalogued 13,000 bronzes, marbles, sketches, watercolors and engravings.
Evolution of the Garden and Museum
The aged buildings in Paris have stories to tell. No exception, the Hotel Biron reads like a playbook of centuries, inhabited by a set of rascally and religious characters, scalawags and Sisters.
As you might expect, the garden followed the fortunes of its owners. It was by turns designed for pleasure or utility, fabulously enjoyed or quietly allowed to run wild.
Commissioned by a penniless but handsome hairdresser who married a rich girl and got even richer by speculating in shady financial deals, this 20-room neo-classic mansion was built on the outskirts of Paris in 1731.
Its owner demanded the “most splendid home” in Paris, and he got it.
Clipped hedges and manicured parterres followed classic design of pleasure gardens of the day.
Alas, the hairdresser only lived for a year after its completion.
Next in this cast of characters were the Duke (charming, illegitimate son of Louis IV) of Maine, and his brainy wife, the Duchess, who were masters in the art of intrigue.
They were arrested for plotting a failed coup.
Being survivors, they were soon back to throwing lavish parties, hunts, fireworks, ballets and balls with the garden as backdrop.
Few changes were made to the garden at this time; the occupants were not much interested in landscaping.
This was not true of the next owner, businessman Marechal de Biron. Yes, the banquets and balls continued, even a lavish welcome for Russia’s Czar Paul.
But Biron came to embrace a natural and exuberant approach to landscaping. In his enthusiasm he opened the garden to the public.
Visitors marveled at ”trellises forming porticoes, arcades, grottoes, domes, Chinese pavilions” and exotic greenhouse plants.
At the same time, this most beautiful and best known garden in Paris had to be guarded by soldiers from hungry looters who were terrorizing the city. Oil lamps blazed every night.
The Duc de Lauzon inherited the property next but did not own it long enough to make changes. He was a very good friend of Marie Antoinette – they partied the nights away, presumably some at the Hotel – until he was guillotined in 1790.
Vacant, the Hotel Biron became a brothel, a gambling den and a dance hall, though now the garden was enjoyed more than ever, with fairs every summer.
Concerts, fireworks, acrobats, jugglers, food concessions and even balloon rides drew crowds. Did the garden take a hit from the trampling?
Under Napoleon, the Hotel Biron became housing for a Papal Legation, and soon after, it became a Russian embassy. Presumably, the garden was ignored.
When the Ladies of the Sacred Heart were given the property for a boarding school for young women in 1820, they stripped the house of decorative features, filled in the pond and replaced the pleasure gardens with a kitchen garden, orchard and pastureland.
The point was to introduce young girls to the idea of a simple, frugal life, a lesson that was apparently lost on one student: Empress Eugenie, Napoleon’s wife.
Eighty years later the nuns were evicted under state-mandated separation of organized religion and education. The garden began to run wild. Rodin loved it.
By 1908, when he and fellow artists were renting studios in the Hotel, Rodin began to place some of his works in the garden, taking pleasure in the play of light and shadow over his bronzes.
“Nature and Antiquity are the two great sources of life for an artist,” he said.
The Hotel, which came close to being razed, was later purchased by the state and then finally given into the hands of Rodin’s executor who would be responsible for curating Rodin’s work.
Musee Rodin opened in 1919.
Since then the garden has been redesigned to incorporate formal clipped hedges and rose gardens along with natural landscaping, and the bronzes are now regularly cleaned and treated.