Interview with
Curator of European Art at the CANTOR CENTER
By Iride Aparicio  

Photos by: Antonio Gadong

Top of THE GATES OF HELL by RODIN  (tinted red for emphasis)

PALO ALTO, CA—  STANFORD is better known around the world as the Alma Mater of  famous Hi Tech alumni, and as the higher-learning institution with Nobel-Prize winners Faculty, but a visit to the IRIS & B. GERALD CANTOR CENTER FOR VISUAL ARTS (The Cantor Center) located on its campus, made CULTURAL WORLD BILINGUAL aware  that the famous university  possesses also  many world’s treasures in its museum, among them, a collection of  FRANÇOIS AUGUSTE-RENÉ RODIN’s sculptures..   

The collection is in  charge of Curator of European Art Mr. BERNARD BARRYTE,  who also oversees the maintenance of the  Western Art objects from the 1500 to the 1900’s, the Ancient Collection of Greek Artifacts, and at times, organizes, installs and mounts the different exhibitions. Discussing  RODIN’s art during our  interview,  Mr BARRYTE revealed  to us how the artist himself described  “Art” :

B.B.: “RODIN said that all “Art”  has to do with function, because an artist makes ornamental things that are functional, thus creates something that is beautiful, moving, inspirational, intellectually and evocative that transform nature. That in “Art” the artist manipulates a state to another state, through human ingenuity, to create objects that surpass their natural state with the purpose to communicate, or try to communicate, to as broad a public as possible.”

C.W.B.  What made you interested in RODIN’s sculptures?

B.B.:  “When I came to Stanford twenty years ago, RODIN was part of my responsibility so I became a RODIN’s  person. In my training at UCLA and USC, like in all universities, they tended to be bias towards painting, rather than sculptures or decorative arts in their academic training, so I was rather conventional. I learned (about sculptures) later, through my work in museums and my own interests, and because I was very interested in Renaissance bronzes, it was a very easy transition for me to become responsible of RODIN, that is a very difficult and challenging artist to apprehend.”

C.W.B.  I understand that The Center have over two hundred of his statues, am I correct?   

B.B. “Roughly”  

C.W.B. In your opinion, which one do you consider his best, and why?

B.B.  “The problem here, is that we are talking about RODIN. He is quite variable in his work. Everything from his incredibly expressive works like The Head of the Muse, or Prayer which is simply a torso of a nude, so here my answer will depends on the interests of the asker, but it is hard to avoid The Gates of Hell.”  (see picture below)

“It is a monumental work. He spent twenty years fiddling with it with high levels of concentration and intervals, in which we don’t know if he ignored it completely or not. All we know is that he exhibited once in l900, but that it was never cast in his life time and that the version we see now was created, after his death by the Curator/Director  of the RODIN’s MUSEUM.”

“We also know that there are photographs of the different faces and, because of the way it was constructed, he (the curator at his museum) may have formulated it over time using the photographs. The plaster we have is pretty good. It is based on the plaster of the Musée Rodin”

GATES OF HELL with the 3 Shades on top and Adam and Eve  L&R 

GATES OF HELL with the 3 Shades on top and Adam and Eve  L&R

La Porte de’l’Infern” as the  The Gates of Hell  the paneled door Mr. BARRYTE’s refers to is called in French,  is  massive.  It measures 6 meters in height and 4 meters in width. The panels contain 180 sculpted figures most of them created after particular verses of  DANTE’s  poem “La Divina Commedia” (The Divine Comedy).

At STANFORD, the door is located outdoors, on  the right side wall of the  CANTOR CENTER. The door has the statue of “THE THREE SHADOWS  standing above it, and large RODIN’s  sculptures of  ADAM (left) and EVE (right) standing at both sides of the door.  (see photo above)
The original sculpture was commissioned by the Directorate of Fine Arts in France in the year l880 and it was meant to be delivered in five years. What the Directorate wanted,  was a decorative entrance for their future Decorative Arts Museum (which was never built).

Mr. BARRYTE, tells us that when RODIN got the commission to create the door for a proposed museum, he was given no parameters and no explanations of how tall it should be, or if it should open in or out, not even what the iconography of it should be, and that it  was RODIN who suggested that DANTE be the source.

“The Thinker on that door, began as the representation of DANTE,” says Mr BARRYTE,  but  over the years it was transmuted as to being a “poet”  or a “Thinker” more generic, when DANTE’s inspiration from the gates expanded to include poets like VICTOR HUGO, and other French writers that RODIN was fascinated with. Thr general theme found now on that door is from the crisis caused by human emotions, and gazing upon all this cascade of humanity depicted in the main panels, is The Thinker”

Le Penseur, (The Thinker) also called “The Poet” is located as a miniature statue above the door panels. There are several interpretations of who did RODIN represent with this figure: The most common interpretation is that it may represent DANTE himself, looking at his characters from above as mentioned by Mr. BARRYTE. Another interpretation is that The Thinker is RODIN himself meditating about his composition. And a third hypothesis is that The Thinker represents Adam, the character in the Bible, contemplating the destruction brought upon mankind because of their sins The Thinker(see picture below)
The figure of The Thinker  is out of proportion. If measured, the torso is too long for the rest of the body. One of the reasons is his form, Theorists think that because he is leaning on one hand and Dante intended for this man to be seen from below, he had to make his torso very long. The other theory is that the reason that the  Thinker’s torso, is so big and so muscular is that RODIN selected a weight-lifter with broad shoulders as his model. What most theorist agree, however, is that this figure was very important to RODIN who placed at the place where he had to be seen, above all the other figures, on top of the door, and in a separate panel.

Other important figures in the door are Les trois Ombres  (the tree men (pictured below) also called  “The Three Shades” whose source is both Inferno and Purgatory of Dante.
While at one time they were three different independent figures, they are now together because RODIN replaced the hand of one of the figures and fused that figure to the other two. It is believed that at one time, before these figures were fused together, they pointed to the Latin phrase:
Abandon all hope all ye who enter here” which is a line from Canto three in LA Divina CommediaInferno.

The Three Shades
The Three Shades

Another famous figure at the door is Ugolino et ses enfants (Ugolino and his children), (pictured below).  It depicts Ugolino della Gherardesca, the man depicted in Canto XXXIII in Inferno, who, according to the story, ate the corpses of his children after they died from starvation In time, many of these small sculptures were enlarged and became works or arts on their own.

Ugolino et ses enfants
Ugolino et ses enfants

Because RODIN’s inspiration for the door come from DANTE’s (l265-l324)  imagined place, RODIN imagined his Inferno as a world with limitless space and lack of gravitational pull. His imagination, allowed him to experiment with freedom, sculpting figures that obey no rules in their poses, gestures, and emotions. But, apparently at the end,  RODIN abandoned the idea of The Inferno and began sculpting figures at the door that just evoke human emotions: forbidden love, pain, suffering, maternal love.  

We read that before starting his sculptures for the door,  RODIN  spent about a year working on the traditional GHIBETI’s Gates of Paradise ( Shown at the Baptistery of the Church of Saint John in Florence,) creating little vignettes from there and  that  Ugolino and his Children and Paolo and Francesca are from that period.  

Working on the ground floor of the Hotel Biron, he created the door and before his death, RODIN donated the sculptures, drawings and reproduction rights the the French government. Two years after RODIN’s death, in l921, the Hotel Biron became the Musée Rodin housing the cast along with other works.

C.W.B.:We know that RODIN was famous for showing emotions in his work. What  of your sculptures on campus describe those emotions best, in your opinion? 

B.B. “In terms of emotions, we have the “The Burghers of Calais” which are not here in the museum but in the court yard at the center of the campus. They are quite moving and they are one of RODIN’s more successful and influential experiments “  

The Burghers of Calais
The Burghers of Calais Back from l-r Jean, Jacques, Andrieu, Front row Pier,  Eustache and Jean d’Aire

B.B: “RODIN was given this commission by the city of Calais to commemorate his heroes from the Hundred Years War. The City of Calais was being besieged  (by Edward III, king of England after victory in the Battle of Crécy.)  When it succumbs, the British King told the citizens “Bring me the keys of your city and put it at my disposal.” Says Mr. BARRYTE

The story we were told may be read on a plate located on the floor of  the stone rectangle where the statues are standing:  if the city did not surrender to the English king.  all the citizens of Calais  would be executed unless six of their leading citizens walked out barefooted, wearing nooses around their necks and carrying the keys to the city and its castle and surrender it to the English King. 

Six French Burghers (from the word burgeois, meaning  members of the French nobility) surrendered: Pierre de Wiessant, (sculpture cast in l981) ) Jacques de Wiessant, (cast l987) Jean de Fiennes (cast l981)  Andriew d’Andres (cast 1981) Eustache de St. Pierre ( cast 1981) and Jean d’Aire (cast l987). (Their sculptures on campus are pictured on the picture above)
Eustache de St. Pierre’s

Although these men expected to be executed, their lives were spared when Queen PHILIPPA of HAINAULT persuaded her husband to have mercy on them.

RODIN could be better understood through the details of his work, and  a close look at the l981 cast of  Eustache de St. Pierre’s (to the left)  allows us to see the details on the face of  RODIN’s sculpture. We can see not only the noose around his neck, but the man's mustache and beard’s hairs. Yet, the most important detail in the face of this master work, is that it shows  us the man’s emotions:  his deep sadness reflected in his eyes.

“When casting these men” says Mr. BARRYTE, referring to the Burghers, RODIN did not allegorizes them, nor he idealizes them, he just shows these citizens having gone from the deprivations and degradations from the siege, and he chooses the most telling and dramatic or melodramatic psychological moment, when they declare their willingness to sacrifice themselves. Now they are heading to meet their fate, they don’t know exactly what their fate is so in each one of them you see a different, very human emotion. It is a very different psychological scene RODIN offers the viewer.”

“On top of that, when displaying them, RODIN wanted to bring this figures off of a pedestal. When he was given the commission, they (the citizens of Calais) wanted the Burghers to be displayed on a pedestal. RODIN wanted them at ground level, so that the citizens of today could mingle with these heroic examples of civic commitment.” he adds.

C.W.B. We still would like your description of one more statue, could you select it for us?

B.B.:  “I would select The Age of Bronze. RODIN had gone to Belgium to get some work and he submitted it to the Salon, and it was rejected because it was so life like that they thought that he had cast it from a human figure instead of sculpturing it. But after he showed some photographs of his model,  and the members of the jury saw RODIN’s working in his studio, they believed that this man could do it.  The controversy and his wonderful statue (The Age of Bronze) gave RODIN a public notice and sort of make his name. After that, he was given the commission for the Gates of Hell and the rest is history.”  

Age of Bronze
The Age of Bronze

C.W.B. Do you have a cast of it?

B.B. “Yes, we have many casts of it.  None of the things here are “unique,” which does not mean that they are not originals. RODIN created works that were intended to be multiples, These things (his sculptures) were meant to be cast many times. Which was a normal practice for the time. There is no such thing as  “an original” RODIN. The original was a clay model that RODIN produced, as a bronze, to show what he had in mind. We have versions of these Bronzes. In our case, the majority happen to be posthumous,  but they are cast from the original Matrix.”

 C.W.B.  Do you have the statue that RODIN put together using a torso from one statue and the legs from another one?

B.B. Do you mean “The Walking Man?”

C.W.B.  Yes,

B.B. Yes we do and it has a very long history.  Because RODIN was very frugal with his ideas and his creations and he was something of a hoarder,  he never threw away stuff that he had made,  The reason why the Musée RODIN archives are so rich is because he kept everything.”

“Back to The Walking man, the legs from that piece were originally created in l870, when he was working on his John the Baptist, the torso too, was related to that walking manproject. I guess  that the torso was re-founded,  because he had exhibited before as an independent work of art around l899. Then he took this legs and created a walking man.” (pictured left). He continues:

“As RODIN was producing  The walking man.  he modified his legs to give it the characteristic that he is moving. There is a great sense of motion about the statue.”

“By this time in his career,  (the early 20th Century) RODIN thought that the parts could be as effective as a whole. Who needs arms and  hands  or even a head?  The torso itself can create the evocative impact that he chose to have or the effect that he chose to have in a particular work. So in The Walking Man” we see that he was constantly pairing down objects to their essentials at this point. So, to RODIN, The Walking Man is just that, a walking man.  It does not need any narrative or extraneous details to distract us from his monumental effort of what he trying to accomplish in his work.”

C.W.B. Before we finish our interview, would you tell me something about the CANTOR ARTS CENTER ?


B.B. “The museum really tries to parallel the University. It tries to be universal so it has examples of nearly all cultures and all times. The only thing we lack is “Medieval Art” which for a reason I don’t know we never collected.  But we have many exhibitions, a substantial collection of prints and photographs and a pretty good portion of our galleries change regularly, so if people come back in just a few months, what they will see will be different. But part of this museum that is "unique" is that it has these areas of significant strength. One of them: THE RODIN collection.”

THE CANTOR ARTS CENTER at Stanford University is located on campus at 328 Lomita Drive.  Admission to the Museum is free.
For information about the exhibitions you can call (650) 723-4177 or go online at