Rodin's work, seen his way

If you walk into the Rodin Museum in Paris and feel as if you have that great master as an unseen docent, there's a good reason. Converted from the Hôtel Biron, the museum was Auguste Rodin's Paris residence during the final decade of his life.

A year before his death in 1917, he bequeathed his paintings, sculptures, drawings, archives, and collections to the government after officials agreed to permanently display them inside this airy 18th-century Rococo mansion and throughout its seven-acre garden.

The Rodin Museum - in the Left Bank's Seventh Arrondissement - opened in 1919, but is often overlooked by tourists who flock to the more famous Louvre and to the trove of Impressionist paintings at the Musée d'Orsay.

A slower pace is one of this small museum's charms. Without the jostle of huge crowds, you can stroll through the elegant two-story structure with its restored woodwork, oval drawing rooms, and Rodin's own casually placed sofas and armchairs. Numerous tall windows on both the north and south sides flood the rooms with light, accentuating the sensuous contours of "The Kiss," the anguished arch of "The Prodigal Son," and the prayerful repose of two hands forming "The Cathedral."

The museum owns more than 6,000 sculptures, which it shares with the artist's country estate in Meudon. (The finished marble and bronze works stay in Paris, however.)

Among the Paris archives are thousands of Rodin's vivid sketches. At any time a third of them are on display in a light-controlled room. On the top floor you can view paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, which were part of Rodin's private collection.

In one room are pieces by Camille Claudel. Although Rodin had a 53-year relationship with Rose Beuret, whom he married a few weeks before she died in 1917, he had liaisons with numerous women. But none was as intense as his lengthy involvement with Claudel, a student 24 years his junior who became his assistant in 1885.

Their passionate affair inspired Rodin's glorification of the loving couple, not only in "The Kiss," but in such works as "The Eternal Idol" and "Paolo and Francesca." After he refused to leave Beuret and marry Claudel, she eventually broke off their relationship. By 1898 she spurned all his attempts to communicate.

Still, Rodin insisted that the museum that contained his work set space apart for her, and a number of her pieces have been acquired over the years.

On mild days, the mansion's large casement windows are thrown open, enticing visitors on the upper floor to view the lawn and profusion of flowers below, as well as the dual promenades leading to the reflecting pool. The cultivated central section is bordered on either side by wooded areas returned to their natural state during a recent renovation.

After leaving the museum you may want to wander through the gardens, lush in spring and summer with roses and rhododendrons. Tucked discreetly into its surroundings, an outdoor cafe is an idyllic spot for lingering.

If you stroll among the linden trees, where several of Rodin's sculptures stand, slowly circle the graceful bronze figures, studying their profiles from every angle just as the sculptor did while he shaped the clay in his studio.

A glass-walled building amid the trees showcases works in marble. Originally part of the outdoor sculpture display, they were cleaned and enclosed in 1995 to prevent further deterioration after years of exposure to the elements.

Some of Rodin's most famous bronze pieces - including "The Thinker," "The Burghers of Calais," and "The Gates of Hell" - are on the grounds in front of the museum.

"The Thinker" sits high on a pedestal in the center of intersecting pathways lined with roses and shaped yew trees. The peak of the Eiffel Tower and the gilded dome of Les Invalides rise in the background.

The burghers, six French citizens about to sacrifice their lives to end the English siege of their city in 1347, stand almost at ground level instead of being elevated. This is the way Rodin wanted the monument to be placed, so that viewers would be deeply moved by looking closely at the postures and facial expressions of the men as they confronted their deaths.

"The Gates of Hell," a huge figure-embossed door based on Dante's "Divine Comedy," is an unfinished masterpiece. You could spend hours gazing at the miniature contorted shapes - many of which Rodin later transformed into full-scale individual sculptures - as they writhe and appear to claw futilely up the bronze slab.

Leaving behind somber contemplations, venture to the farthest reaches of the back gardens and discover a semi-secluded refuge. With its wooden chaise longues and view of the oval reflecting pool, the serene area invites visitors to rest. Here, on a sunny afternoon, you're likely to find a young father feigning a catnap while his spirited daughter teases him awake. You could imagine Rodin pausing to observe them, deciding how best to translate that familial scene into a malleable mound of clay.

• The Musée Rodin is located at 77 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. For more information, call 011 33 1 44 18 61 10 or go to the website, www.musee-rodin.fr.

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