Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), born to a working-class family in the Mouffetard district of Paris, entered the Petite Ecole (École Spéciale de Dessin et de Mathématiques) at the age of thirteen.  At the Petite École, a government school for craft and design, Rodin was a promising student but failed three times to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts.   In 1862, he entered the Order of the Pères du Saint-Sacrement where he was encouraged by the headmaster to devote himself to art instead of the Catholic order.  For Rodin to become a recognized and successful sculptor, he practiced great self-discipline and committed himself to continuing his studies so he participated in classes at the Antoine-Louis Barye at the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle.[i]

During the 19th century, winning a public competition was the best way for an amateur artist to achieve a reputation and livelihood.  The Call to Arms, created in 1879 by Rodin, was entered into a competition for a memorial to the defense of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).  The winning work was to be erected at the rond-point de Courbevoie, where the defense of Paris began in 1870.  The competition called for a group of two figures that would be cast in bronze. Like many of the other competition entries, Rodin’s sketch for his potential monument consisted of a female allegorical figure juxtaposed with a male warrior; however, the work distinguished itself from other works by the manner in which “the broken rhythm of the warrior’s body contrasted with the dynamism of the female figure.”[ii] When he created The Call to Arms, his reputation had not yet been made although he was nearing the age of forty.

The composition of the sculpture displays the bare-breasted Genius, or Spirit, of War, who hurls her arms wide with clenched fists as she releases a voiceless cry of passion and furry.  Her mighty wings in motion, she attempts to rouse the dying warrior who leans against her lower body, attempting to support himself with the sword in his left hand.  As he looks up at the Genius of War who rises behind him, she valiantly cries out to him in order to bring him back into battle from his descent into death.  The spiraling composition carries the eye upward, to the emotional faces of the figures who struggle with hopelessness and defeat.

Rodin envisioned the female as “a fighting Genius of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap”.[iii] A traditional emblem of freedom, the Phrygian cap became a symbol of the French Republic during the 19th century.  The image of a strong, overpowering woman – as allegory and muse – came to represent the “struggle, heroism, and resistance of the French people.”[iv] Although she is strong in many ways, her bent wing suggests that she too is wounded and also human.  The recognition of the mortality of an allegorical figure who represents France, suggests that even a country is not immune to defeat. The Call to Arms is an emblem to heroic people to whom violence is done and who are vulnerable in flesh and spirit.

The Call to Arms, submitted to the judges as a plaster model, was rejected from the competition; his project failed to receive even an honorable mention.  The French judges expected calm and dignity in public monuments, especially one recalling the heroic defeat of the French troops, not spiraling rhythms and agitated profiles.  In Rodin’s opinion, the jury snubbed his entry because it was too dramatic.[v] The blatant acceptance of human struggle and weakness dismayed the committee who wanted a sculpture that captured the dignified sentiment of the French undertaking and did not show the warrior in a non-heroic pose.  Rodin’s ambitions were recognized in 1920, a few years after he died when an enlarged version of The Call to Arms, in bronze, was purchased by the Dutch government and set up as a war memorial to Verdun.

While The Call to Arms was rejected from the competition, Rodin revolutionized sculpture and changed the established styles of his day.  Rodin’s rough, expressive, and detailed modeling allowed him to represent psyche and dynamic structure of his subjects.  His faithfulness to depicting nature and emotion the way he saw it set him apart from other sculptors of the time and went against the idealized sculptures of the western and classical sculpture tradition.  Since the height of his career, Rodin has been widely accepted as the greatest sculptor of the 19th century and one of the greatest sculptors since Michelangelo.  While The Call to Arms first struggled to win the competition and the hearts of France, Rodin’s sculpture was ultimately a success.


[i] Catherine Lampert, “Rodin, Auguste,” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online.

[ii] Catalogue of works in the Musée Rodin, vol. 1, The Bronzes of Rodin, Antoinette le Normand-Romain (Paris, 2007), 302.

[iii] Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 126.

[iv] Melissa Dabakis, “Martyrs and Monuments of Chicago: The Haymarket Affair,” Prospects, (Kenyon College, 1994), 121.

[v] Albert E. Elsen, ed., Rodin Rediscovered (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981),  128.


Auguste Rodin, French, 1840-1917, Project for a Monument to the Defense of Paris (The Call to Arms), 1879, cast later bronze, Ackland Fund, 73.35.1
Butler, Ruth. Rodin: The Shape of Genius. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.
Catalogue of works in the Musée Rodin, vol. 1, The Bronzes of Rodin, Antoinette le Normand-Romain (Paris, 2007), 300-302.
Dabakis, Melissa. “Martyrs and Monuments of Chicago: They Haymarket Affair.” Prospects. Kenyon College, 1994.
Elsen, Albert E., ed. Rodin Rediscovered. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art 1981.
Lampert, Catherine. “Rodin, Auguste.” In Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online,