The letter was published in The Times of 6 September 1886. It is a reply to an attack on Auguste Rodin. The painter Edward Armitage had contributed several letters to that newspaper, writing that he believed the rejection of Rodin’s sculpture by the Academy was due to ‘the intrinsic badness of the work itself’.
[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1691.]
To the Editor of The Times
[Lawton, The Life and Work of A. Rodin, 1906, 246-8]
Skerryvore [Early September 1886]
Mr. Armitage, R.A., repeating (by his own confession), in ignorance, that which he has gathered from the lips of the indiscriminating, comes before your readers with a strange account of Monsieur Rodin.
That gentleman, I read, is called the ‘Zola of sculpture’, and his ‘work is too realistic and coarse even for the strong stomach of the French public’. I will not deny that he may have been called the Zola of sculpture, but I should like to know by whom. The point of such a phrase lies in the authority, and a byword is no argument; or which of the two popular views are we to accept of Mr. Gladstone, and which of the Academy?
Monsieur Zola is a man of a personal and forceful talent, approaching genius, but of diseased ideals; a lover of the ignoble, dwelling complacently in foulness, and, to my sense, touched with erotic madness.
Those defects mar his work so intimately that I have nothing further from my mind than to defend it. I do not think it can often have a good influence; I am inclined to fear it will always have a bad. And on this I would say one word, in passing, to Mr. Armitage – that national comparisons are seldom wise; and he will find (if he look around him) the dainty stomachs of the English supporting Monsieur Zola with a fortitude hardly to be distinguished from gratification, and that, in a translation from which the redeeming merits of the original have fled.
To Monsieur Rodin the first words of the above description may be applied, and the first words only. He, too, is a man of a personal and forceful talent, and there all comparison is at an end. Monsieur Rodin’s work is real in the sense that it is studied from the life and itself lives, but it has not a trace of realism in the evil, and that is in the privative sense. Monsieur Zola presents us with a picture to no detail of which can we take grounded exception. It is only on the whole that it is false. We find therein nothing lovable or worthy; no trace of the pious gladnesses, innocent loves, ennobling friendships, and not infrequent heroisms by which we live surrounded; nothing of the high mind and the pure aims in which we find our consolation. Hence we call his work realistic in the evil sense, meaning that it is dead to the ideal and speaks only to the senses.
Monsieur Rodin’s work is the clean contrary of this. His is no triumph of workmanship lending an interest to what is base, but to an increasing degree, as he proceeds in life, the noble expression of noble sentiment and thought. I was one of a party of artists that visited his studio the other day;
and, after having seen his later work, the ‘Dante,’
the ‘Paolo and Francesca,’
the ‘Printemps qui passe,’
we came forth again into the streets of Paris, silenced, gratified, humbled in the thought of our own efforts, yet with a fine sense that the age was not utterly decadent, and that there were yet worthy possibilities in art.
But, remark, it was not the sculptor we admired; nor was it his skill, admirable and unusual as that is, that we talked of as we went homeward. These questions of material talent had fallen below our thoughts; and the solemn face of the ‘Dante’ over the great door still spoke to our imagination.
The public are weary of statues that say nothing. Well, here is a man coming forward, whose statues live and speak, and speak things worth uttering. Give him time, spare him nicknames and the cant of cliques, and I venture to predict this man will take a place in the public heart. – I am, etc.,
Robert Louis Stevenson