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Travel Beyond Rodin: A walking tour of some of the best sculpture art in Paris

The sculptures of Auguste Rodin are celebrated at Musée Rodin, but the works of lesser-known artists are worth finding at museums around Paris.

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Musée Rodin

Auguste Rodin never saw the Hôtel Biron looking as elegant as it does today. The mansion had fallen into picturesque disrepair by the time Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke first invited him to lunch here in 1908. By then, the hôtel was being rented out as a work space to Rilke and other writers and artists. But the mansion had already spent seventy years as a convent school for girls. The nuns had financed additions by stripping and selling the house’s marble chimneys, ironwork, and wooden mouldings.

This didn’t bother Rodin, who rented a suite on the ground floor. In his 60s, and the golden years of his career, Rodin still rose at five every morning to commute into Paris. The studio for Rodin and his team of assistants occupied two rooms. He took his meals in his adjoining study, cluttered with unfinished busts, faded antique chairs, and Chinese bronzes and antique sculpture.

Rodin's Le Penseur (The Thinker) sits outside the Museé Rodin.

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It was only Rodin’s fame and his friends’ hard work that saved the declining Hôtel Biron from demolition. Learning “that this masterpiece was condemned, his heart had bled,” wrote biographer Judith Cladel. “For the first and only time in the course of his long existence an outside interest took him from his work.”

Cladel and other supporters urged the French government to purchase the Hôtel Biron and accept a donation of the work Rodin had not sold to create a dedicated museum. The Musée Rodin opened two years after the sculptor’s death in 1917 and became one of Paris’s most visited “small” museums. .

77 rue de Varenne; Musee-rodin.fr

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Musée Maillol

Dina Vierny was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, adventurous and active in leftist causes . Aristide Maillol was one of the best-known sculptors of his day, in his seventies and seemingly politically indifferent. But the two developed an unusual friendship. He was her entry into the heights of the French art world of the interwar years. She became his final muse.

In 1939 Maillol moved from the Paris region to his hometown of Banyuls-sur-Mer. Vierny travelled there to model for a new sculpture in 1940, months before the German army invaded France.

The Fondation Dina Vierny features several sculptures by Aristide Maillol.

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Vierny soon joined a network smuggling refugees and political dissidents south and out of Europe. Her charges received instructions to take the last train to Banyuls-sur-Mer and look for the woman in a red dress sitting in a café. They did not approach Vierny but followed at a distance when she left, all the way over the mountain to the Spanish border.

Maillol noticed Vierny’s fatigue during her sittings, and she told him about her clandestine activities. He showed her shorter paths that locals used and painted her portrait in the red dress.

After the war, Vierny became a prominent gallerist. She also continued to collect and promote Maillol’s work, installing several bronzes in the Tuileries. In 1995, she created the Fondation Dina Vierny to house her art collection.

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Unfortunately, much of it has been relegated to storage to make room for larger temporary exhibitions, in which her pieces occasionally appear. Mostly, what remain are the Maillols. His paintings, sculptures, and drawings occupy their own floor, the permanent legacy of a woman devoted to her mentor.

61 rue de Grenelle; museemaillol.com

Musée Bourdelle

In 1885, Antoine Bourdelle rented an atelier on the rue du Maine amid other artists’ studios. Only in his mid-twenties, he had found where he would live and work for the rest of his life.

Bourdelle built his reputation while employed as an assistant to Auguste Rodin from 1893 to 1909. He went on to a much-lauded career as an artist and teacher of his own students, including Matisse, Maillol, and Alberto Giacometti.

Paris's rue du Maine was renamed rue Antoine Bourdelle after his death.

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Bourdelle tended to visit the same subjects repeatedly. He created more than forty-five portraits of Beethoven. Among the classical subjects he went back to was the centaur, which he sculpted a dozen times.

The city of Paris renamed the rue du Maine the rue Antoine Bourdelle the year after the artist’s death in 1929. His museum came later. The tireless efforts of members of Bourdelle’s family deserve credit for both its creation and two major later expansions in the early 1960s – when the Great Hall was built – and the early 1990s. The Great Hall, by architect Henri Gautruche, displays the plaster casts used as the basis for some of Bourdelle’s largest and best-known bronzes.

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18 rue Antoine Bourdelle; Bourdelle.paris.fr

Musée Zadkine

Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine belonged to L’École de Paris, a catchall term for experimental, foreign artists arriving in Paris in the early twentieth century, most famously Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.

Zadkine, in particular, intersected briefly with Cubism, Symbolism, and sometimes emulated classical sculpture. He worked in monumental marble and bronze as well as humbler materials like wood and cement.

The School of Paris artists initially clustered around Montmartre, but gradually relocated to Montparnasse. Zadkine did so in 1912, later moving to the residence at the edge of the neighbourhood that now houses his museum. He began taking his work outside too, into the garden.

Stepping into its small, leafy garden of the Musée Zadkine is to truly enter the artist's vision, with the sculptures still arranged as he left them.

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World War II generally marked the end of the productive period for the Paris School artists. Zadkine, the son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism, was granted political asylum by the United States. His wife, Valentine Prax, hid his bronzes in the basements of houses along their street and retreated with the rest of his work to their country house in the north of France.

Returning to Paris in 1945, Zadkine got back to work, racking up honours and commissions. His return trip through devastated European cities inspired La Ville Détruite (The Destroyed City), a monument in the heavily damaged Rotterdam.

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Zadkine and Prax had discussed creating a museum of his work. She pursued the idea after his death and left their home to the city of Paris to become the Musée Zadkine in 1982. To step into its small, leafy garden is to truly enter Zadkine’s vision, with the sculptures arranged as he left them.

100 bis rue d’Assas; zadkine.paris.fr

Adapted with permission from The Little(r) Museums of Paris © 2019 by Emma Jacobs, Running Press

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