In 1909 the great French artist Auguste Rodin sculpted the head of the famous Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.
Returning from New York in 1909, Mahler and his wife Alma stayed in Paris from 19 to 30 April. They visited Rodin’s studio, where Mahler sat for a bust commissioned by Carl Moll, Alma’s stepfather, who was also an eminent Viennese painter and Alma’s stepfather. In the end, Rodin made two portraits of Mahler, one in white marble and the other in bronze.
The sittings took place in Rodin’s rooms at the Hôtel Biron, an 18th century mansion in the heart of Paris which until 1904 had belonged to the Nuns of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and served as a school for young girls. It was here that Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, Alain-Fournier’s real-life heroine portrayed in Le grand Meaulnes, attended classes. Rodin occupied the upper floor, while the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, had quarters on the ground floor. Today, the building is known as the Musée Rodin.
Nothing is recorded of what Rodin and Mahler said to each other, although both men were known to be irascible and the language barrier must have been formidable. The sittings were attended by Mahler’s wife Alma and her unreliable memoirs only provide one page of vague reminiscences. In Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters (1940), she writes:
“Rodin fell in love with his model; he was really unhappy when we had to leave Paris, for he wanted to work on the bust much longer. His method was unlike that of any other sculptor I have had the opportunity of watching. He first made flat surfaces in the rough lump, and then added little pellets of clay which he rolled between his fingers while he talked. He worked by adding to the lump instead of subtracting from it. As soon as we left he smoothed it all down and next day added more. I scarcely ever saw him with a tool in his hand.”
Alma Mahler comments that Rodin described Mahler’s head as “a mixture of Franklin’s, Frederick the Great’s and Mozart’s.”
Two different portraits of the composer emerged from these sittings, one in a traditional, realistic style which later served for the creation of a marble bust. The other was more vivid and nervous. Rodin emphasised the forehead and eyes, achieving a more penetrating expression that echoed Mahler’s own words about himself, “If I weren’t obliged to wear glasses, I would conduct with my eyes.”
Rodin made several bronze casts of Mahler’s head. The one in Washington’s National Gallery of Art (pictured here) was the gift of Lotte Walter Lindt in memory of her father, the conductor Bruno Walter, who worked closely with the composer as his assistant and protégé. It was Walter who, after Mahler’s death, conducted the first performances of Das Lied von der Erde and the magnificent Ninth Symphony.
Monumental is a word that describes both Mahler’s symphonies and many of Rodin’s sculptures. In some ways, the two men were well matched.