One might say that the little Rodin Museum is a perfect counterpoint to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which looks down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to this little pavilion on its right (east) side. While the PMA offers breadth, the Rodin Museum can offer it depth in the form of the second-largest collection of the work of the French sculptor August Rodin located outside France. (Pedants and art buffs might be interested to know that as Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket is presently closed for renovations, the Rodin Museum’s collection is the largest of its kind outside France that is actually open!)
The museum itself and its location in Philadelphia are a testament to the collecting acumen and civic pride of Jules E. Mastbaum, the local movie theater magnate and philanthropist who amassed the collection with the express intention of opening it to the public. In a mere three years, from 1923 until his death in 1926, Mastbaum managed to acquire 124 sculptures by Rodin, as well as complementary drawings, prints, and letters, which are also on display. Mastbaum retained the French neoclassical architects Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber to design the building, and although he did not live to see the collection open in 1929, it serves as a memorial to his vision as well as Rodin’s.
The museum itself benefits from breadth as well as depth – its facade features one of only two versions of the "Gates of Hell," the monumental work which consumed the final 37 years of Rodin’s life, from 1880 to 1917, in existence. Naturally, a copy of "The Thinker" guards the museum’s entrance, while a version of the only marginally less famous "Burghers of Calais" is on display inside. Several of the bronzes are in turn accompanied by the plaster versions from which they were cast, but to my mind it’s Rodin’s works in stone, which by their nature cannot be recast in the way many of his works in bronze have been, that make this collection so enjoyable. Works such as "Aurora and Tithonus" and "The Awakening" seem to emerge directly from the material, as they indeed did from the master’s chisel, in contrast to the bronzes which were essentially drawn from a pre-shaped void.
Such high-minded concerns about the respective provenance of different forms of sculpture aside, their contrast serves to enhance the museum’s beauty – the dark bronzes and white stone and plaster echo the same colors in the building itself to create a delightful and rest chiaroscuro. The light and airy feeling of the museum, which is essentially a single large hall with three small galleries at its rear, invites extended contemplation and sketching, which seems to be welcomed. Unfortunately, its ample windows are a double-edged sword, as it can become quite hot in summer and relatively cool in winter. Still, as long as your mind can triumph over your body, this wonderful little museum is one of the finest devoted to a single artist anywhere.