He was the most celebrated sculptor of the late 19th century, achieving during his lifetime a fame which has done much to obscure his real qualities.
He worked as a mason from about 1864, and in 1871 was sent to Brussels to do the decorative figures on the new Stock Exchange building, on which he eventually worked as a freelance. He supplemented his technical training by studying in museums and became interested in Michelangelo, to whom he was probaly led by his admiration for Puget. In 1875 he visited Italy, and soon afterwards began working on his first independent freestanding figure, Bronze Age (1877). Its lifelike quality, accuracy of proportion and anatomy, and rendering of movement gave rise to the tale that it had been made from a cast taken from a live model. Though the absurd accusation was later dropped, the figure received no real recognition until it was shown in London in 1884. This put Rodin into much the same position of anti-academism as the Impressionists and their successors, although he never had to face opposition as vehement and entrenched as they did.
Most of his public commissions were unlucky: the base of the Claude Lorraine monument in Nancy was altered to suit the town council; the town council of Calais refused to erect his Burghers (1884-6: replica outside the Houses of Parliament, London) according to his design; his only equestrian statue, General Lynch, was destroyed before erection in Santiago by a Chilean revolution (a small bronze of the model is now in Santiago); his Thinker was not erected as he wished and was savaged by a vandal with a chopper; his Victor Hugo was produced in several versions to meet endless objections and was finally not put up as planned; his Balzac monument was refused by the commissioning committee in 1893 and only erected much later; his Gate of Hell, commissioned in 1880 as a door for the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, was still unfinished at his death, and is now in the Mus. d'Orsay.
This door, inspired by Ghiberti's so-called Gates of Paradise for the Baptistry in Florence, contained a large number of figures which provided him with a fount of ideas which he used over and over in larger independent statues and groups in bronze and marble (e.g. The Thinker, The Prodigal Son). He also employed many marble-cutters and cast-makers to make replicas, which he often completed himself: Bourdelle and Despiau both worked for him.
He was the creator of a new form in sculpture - the fragment as a finished work, usually a head or a trunk, but sometimes a pair of hands only - and he also employed a variant of Michelangelo's unfinished figures, giving to some parts a waxy delicacy of finish, while leaving other parts buried in the hardly touched block. It is important, however, to understand that his nonfinito quality is contrived from the standpoint of a modeller in clay, and not as a mason would actually leave unfinished forms roughed-out in a block of stone, contrary to his own early training. This problem was discussed by Hildebrandt. His great influence was through the possibilities opened up by his use of fragments, through his expression of emotion and movement, his use of symbolism and distortion, and the amazing sensitiveness of his modelling. This is seen particularly in his male portraits, which combine vivid characterization with a deliberately free handling. Rodin himself described his methods in 1913, saying: 'I place the model in such a way that it stands out against the background and so that the light falls on this profile. I execute it, and turn both my turn-table and that of the model so that I can see another profile. Then I turn them again and gradually work my way round the figure,' an essentially pictorial approach to sculpture.
There is little point in listing museums containing works, since there are, for instance, 150 or more replicas of the Bronze Age, but the Musee Rodin in Paris and the V&A in London have perhaps the largest collections. There is also a Rodin Mus. in Philadelphia, and forty-four works in Los Angeles (County Mus.).