On August 31, 1908, the greatest German poet of his time, Rainer-Maria Rilke, moved into a studio in an 18th century mansion in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He was immediately inspired to write this note:
“Dear Great Friend,You must see this beautiful building and the room I have been living in since this morning. Three bay windows open prodigiously on an abandoned garden where from time to time we see naïve rabbits leap over the trellises as in an ancient tapestry. If you are in town one of these days it would be my greatest joy if we might lunch together…”
The “dear great friend” was none other than Auguste Rodin. This note marked the first time Rilke had communicated with Rodin in two years, since the great sculptor had abruptly fired him from his job as his secretary.
This is the story of the on-again/off-again relationship of these two geniuses and how it ultimately led to the existence of the Musée Rodin. This magnificent property includes not only the handsome 1730 mansion the Hôtel Biron, but also the third-largest garden of any house in Paris (after the Elysées Palace and the Hôtel Matignon), dotted with one Rodin masterpiece after another – The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, and dozens of others. But at the time Rilke wrote to Rodin it looked nothing like today. It was an elegant dump, abandoned four years earlier when the convent school occupying it lost its government subsidy. Writers and artists began to move in.
Auguste Rodin was Rilke’s artistic idol. The Prague-born poet first came to Paris in 1902 to write an essay about him. A generation older, Rodin took a liking to the gifted but emotionally and artistically immature poet, then twenty-six, and he loved what Rilke wrote about his work. So in 1905 he hired the young man as his secretary and brought him to live with his family at his home in Meudon, outside Paris, where his vast sculpture atelier was located. Rilke reveled in his chance to see Rodin at work every day, to feel the intensity of his work ethic, and observe his ability to make, as if by magic, solid material come to life. At night Rilke would enter a room, lamp in hand, to look at the small sculptures: “As they wake up, one by one, like animals, life comes back into them, hesitantly, still heavy with dream.” He was in heaven. But six months into the job, Rodin suddenly dismissed him without explanation. Devastating though the shock of being fired was, it set off a poetic explosion.
In July 1907, Rilke wrote to his wife Clara that he had spent a whole morning watching three gazelles in the zoo of Paris’s Jardin des Plantes: “As women gaze out at you from pictures, so they gaze out with something, with a soundless final turn.” This became the inspiration for his poem “The Gazelle,” one of his so-called “thing poems,” heavily influenced by Rodin – but going the opposite way. Whereas Rodin made inanimate objects come to life, Rilke turned animate objects into things, sculpted by the words of his poems. Thanks to such poems as “The Gazelle” and “The Panther,” also based on his visits to the Jardin des Plantes, his two volumes of New Poems in 1907 in 1908 were tremendous hits. And they gave him the confidence to invite Rodin to lunch.
Rodin accepted. He loved the place. He signed a lease for the ground floor right away and moved in a month later. Now on a relatively equal artistic basis, their previous woes forgotten, Rodin and Rilke were able to converse freely. Their only disagreement was about women. Rodin could not separate them from their sexuality (his “French temperament", as Rilke saw it), whereas Rilke defended the model of Nordic women, whose purity did not make them obstacles to art.
In 1912 the government decided to demolish the Hôtel Biron. To prevent that from happening, Rodin offered to will a large body of his works to the French government if it would preserve it as a museum after his death. Thanks to a massive outpouring of support, the government agreed. And when he died five years later the Hôtel Biron and its grounds became the Musée Rodin.
But what about Rilke? Does he get any credit? Take a look at the wall to the left of the massive wooden carriage doors at the entrance to the compound, and you will see a little plaque. It says:
In this mansion, to which he introduced Auguste Rodin, Rainer-Maria Rilke lived from 1908 to 1911.