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Lightness and elegance from the young Rodin

THIS bust of a girl in a hat with roses is, perhaps rather surprisingly when you consider his mature development, by the French 19th-century sculptor Auguste Rodin. It is an early work. In feeling it seems closer to the paintings of Renoir than to the brooding expressiveness, the charged 'elan and anguish of such later works by Rodin as ``The Burghers of Calais'' or ``Gates of Hell.'' This naively pretty child in her summer straw hat, molded in terra cotta with such sensitive bravura and delightful realism, is equally far from Rodin's attitude to ``ugliness'' in sculpture, seen in pieces like the early bust of ``Man with the Broken Nose,'' his massive ``Monument to Balzac,'' and some demonstratively grotesque heads of a Japanese dancer called Hanako. On this attitude the sculptor was to write uncompromisingly: ``When an artist ... softens the grimace of pain, the shapelessness of age, the hideousness of perversion, when he arranges nature - veiling, disguising, tempering it to please an ignorant public - then he is creating ugliness because he fears truth.''

The rather scant attention given to this terra-cotta bust by art historians usually emphasizes that it is an example of the influence on the young Rodin of his master, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, and of Carpeaux, both of whom showed in their work a respect for the rococo style of the 18th century with its lightness and elegance. Monique Laurent, however, adds that nevertheless ``there is no feeling of pastiche; on the contrary, the work is remarkable for its very personal fashioning, the unsophisticated volumes of the hair, the bold hollowing-out of the eyes and the velvety softness of the youthful skin.''

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When you encounter it at the Mus'ee Rodin in Paris - it has not been reproduced in bronze and spread throughout the art galleries of the world like so many Rodins - you can't help being struck by its immediacy and truth. The sculptor might almost have worked on it yesterday. This is due not only to the undisguised evidence of the artist's bold forming of the clay, but also to his magical capturing of his subject's youngness. Her small nose, her apparently bright and innocent eyes, even her teeth showing between slightly opened lips, suggest childishness on the edge of adulthood.

It is because of this that it is difficult to believe those writers who identify the subject of this bust as Rose Beuret. When she and Rodin first met, in 1864, while he was working on decorations for the Gobelins Theater, he was 24 and she was 20. She was to act as both his assistant and his model, and she eventually became his wife. Various figures and faces, sometimes allegorical, sometimes closer to portraiture, have been identified as Rose. The best known is perhaps ``Mignon'' (ca. 1870). If this date is correct, Rose would then have been 26, and while it is just possible that she was very childish-looking at 20 (assuming that Rodin modeled her in a hat with roses almost as soon as they met) and had developed quite differently pronounced and angular features by 1870, it still seems rather extraordinary. ``Mignon,'' it is true, was not only a portrait but also an evocation of a central character in Goethe's novel ``Wilhelm Meister'' - an adolescent girl who dresses as a boy and has many adventures. Conscious of this aspect of the story, Rodin may have made Rose's features deliberately more boyish. However, a much later photograph of her shows that she did indeed have strong features: a wide jaw, a definite nose, and high cheek bones. So it seems much more likely that ``Mignon'' is the first known bust of Rose, and that ``Girl in a Flowered Hat'' is of some unknown 12- or 13-year-old child.

Rodin biographer Judith Cladel records that in the late 1870s he made numerous little sculptures in the manner of Carrier-Belleuse. And she says that floral decoration was added to these by the sculptor Legrain. This makes Jacques de Caso and Patricia B. Sanders, in their critical study of Rodin's sculpture in the Spreckels Collection, San Francisco, suggest that a bust of ``Madame Cruchet'' that is usually dated between 1865 and 1870 might instead have been modeled in the 1860s and cast commercially (with flowers added to her hair by Legrain) only in the late 1870s. To support their notion, De Caso and Sanders suggest a difference between the style of the flowers and the rest of the head.

But what would they say about our ``Girl with Roses on her Hat'' (who, incidentally, has gathered to herself an astonishing array of titles)? Stylistically, like ``Madame Cruchet'' she belongs to the 1860s. Are we to suppose that hat and flowers were added 10 years later? Apparently she was never cast in bronze, so there is no particular reason why she should have not been finished, decoratively speaking, until so long after Rodin evidently modeled her.

The fact is that she is such a completely realized piece of work, hat and flowers and all, that there is surely little reason to suppose she was not made entirely by Rodin and at one time.

Whatever the case, she remains an agreeable sculpture, modeled in the beginning stages of a remarkable career. Although her charm and slightly intense prettiness proved to be at odds with the sculptor's later art, she is still evidence of a percipience and vigor, as well as a ready command of materials, with which Rodin must have felt he could do more or less what he liked: He was already conscious of his own genius.

Late in his career he told an assistant something about his approach to portrait sculpture that sheds some light on the delicacy he generally brought to those he made of the female sex, and certainly to this one:

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``In portraits of our own sex,'' he said, ``we must pierce without pity the innermost crannies of their souls, must strip them of disguise.... But a portrait of a woman is another thing, their nature is not ours, we are far from grasping it; we must therefore be respectful and discreet. We must be circumspect in unveiling their tender and delicate mystery. Even with them, always the truth, but not always all the truth. Sometimes we may, just a little, drop the veil.''

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