Auguste Rodin’s famous marble sculpture, “The Kiss,” is one of the world’s most renowned examples of carnal love demonstrated through art. Many people are familiar with the statue, which features two nude lovers kissing passionately, but they don’t know its surprising and somewhat sordid history.
Inspiration for “The Kiss”
When one initially views “The Kiss,” it’s easy to interpret it as a positive symbol of love and romance. In reality, though, Rodin created the sculpture to represent two adulterers from Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno.”
To truly explore the history of “The Kiss,” it’s essential to go back to its origin. Auguste Rodin (1840 -1917) was an established sculptor and artist when he created “The Kiss” (between 1888 and 1898). That same period, the French state commissioned him to design a pair of bronze doors for a museum.
Rodin chose Dante’s “Inferno,” the first part of his epic poem “The Divine Comedy,” as a theme for the doors.
He planned to feature a pair of lovers in the middle of the left door panel to represent the passionate love affair between Paolo and Francesca (two characters Dante meets in the second circle of hell). Specifically, he wanted to illustrate their first kiss.
In Dante’s poem, Francesca and Paolo’s relationship began while reading tales of courtly love (in the image sculpted on the doors, you can see Paolo dropping his book). Paolo’s brother and Francesca’s husband soon discovered their relationship and murdered them.
How the Sculpture Came to Be
Despite Rodin’s hard work, the plans for the museum fell through in the mid-1880s. The doors then became known as Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” and weren’t cast in bronze until after he died years later.
However, in 1886, Rodin decided that he didn’t want to give up on his representation of Paolo and Francesca and that the image would work better as a marble sculpture—which the French state commissioned him to create a year later.
It took over a decade for Rodin to complete the sculpture. It stood unfinished in his studio while he worked on other projects. However, in 1898, he decided to exhibit it alongside a statue of his “most radical work,” a statue of the writer Honoré de Balzac.
The Release of “The Kiss”
Surprisingly, the sculpture of de Balzac was met with ridicule. However, the public had great admiration for “The Kiss,” and many people requested copies.
Over 300 bronze copies were cast and sold quickly after “The Kiss” was unveiled. According to Catherine Lampert, an art historian and Rodin scholar, the sculpture was a “magnet for thoughts of romantic, physical, youthful passion.”
The First Replica
Initially, all replicas of the sculpture were smaller than the original. However, in 1900, Edward Perry Warren, a Bostonian residing in East Sussex, requested a full-size replica made from “the finest possible marble.”
Rodin agreed and charged 20,000 francs. He also stipulated that the man’s “genital organ” had to be completed in this version of the project.
It took about four years for Rodin to finish Warren’s sculpture. However, when it was delivered, Warren found that it was too big for his home. As a result, the sculpture had to be stored in the stable block on the property.
An Indecent Donation
Even though it didn’t fit in his house, Warren was still pleased with his version of “The Kiss” and seemed proud to possess a life-size copy of it.
Warren also seemed to want others to enjoy the sculpture, as he loaned it to Lewes Town Hall during World War I. It was installed in the Assembly Room, a recreation area for soldiers.
Although he had good intentions behind his decision to donate the sculpture temporarily, it was not well received.
Locals objected to “The Kiss” and the nudity of its subjects. They even worried that it would encourage the soldiers to engage in lewd behavior.
The locals were so upset that the sculpture was eventually covered by a sheet and protected by a railing. Two years later, it returned to Warren’s property and was hidden by hay bales for protection.
In 2003, artist Cornelia Parker visited the museum. She decided to move “The Kiss” back to Tate Britain, but with an added twist—she wrapped it in a mile of string, a reference to artist Marcel Duchamp, who wrapped an exhibition space to obscure other artworks.
Parker described her project as a “battle between two styles” (meaning Rodin’s and Duchamp’s styles). She explained that adding the string restored some of the original complicated feelings associated with “The Kiss” and noted that the string represented “the complications of relationships” in general.
Some people were not pleased with Parker’s project, and it received many negative reviews. One Tate visitor even cut the string.
Parker explained that she didn’t want to give the vandal more attention, so she just tied the string back on and said that it made the revamped sculpture “slightly more punk.” She also said it’s one of her favorite pieces, despite its mixed reception.
Today, visitors have multiple options for viewing Rodin’s work. They can see Parker’s art “The Kiss” at Tate Britain. The original version of the sculpture is also displayed at Musée Rodin for those who want to compare and contrast the two versions.