Man with Serpent

When this sculpture is viewed from the front, the outcome of the struggle is uncertain. Only from the side can we see the serpent delivering a fatal bite to the man’s neck. The man’s pose was adapted, at the request of a collector, from that of a falling figure in a monumental sculpture on which Rodin worked for 37 years but never finished—the Gates of Hell. Plaster casts like this one were an important part of the process of transforming a clay model into a finished bronze.

Man with Serpent is an altered version of The Falling Man, a sculptural element in Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell. In 1880, Rodin received a commission from the Ministry of Fine Arts for a monumental portal for the proposed Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Rodin based the imagery of the portal on Dante’s Inferno and looked to Ghiberti’s famous Baptistry doors (which Rodin saw in Florence in 1875), thus connecting his Gates of Hell to Renaissance literary and artistic precedents. From 1880 until his death in 1917, Rodin labored over the Gates of Hell, producing seemingly endless studies and models of the human figure in his search to express the psychological anguish and physical suffering of the damned in their descent into the fiery depths of purgatory. Rodin regarded the Gates of Hell as the culminating achievement of his career. Because he never considered the work to be complete, it was not cast in bronze until after his death.

In 1885, the collector Antony Roux asked Rodin to alter a figure from the lintel of the Gates of Hell, changing the subject from a man falling helplessly to one resolutely wrestling with a serpent. Rodin agreed reluctantly: “I am not making any modifications for myself. It is for you that I am making the changes, and it is to enter into the subject of a man struggling with a serpent that I will change the arms.” Thus, Roux received his wish, apparently preferring the mythical rhetoric of a man struggling against evil, as symbolized by the serpent, to a disempowered body falling hopelessly to his smoldering end. . . .

—Sabine Kriebel, excerpted from The Art and Craft of Nineteenth-Century Sculpture, Jennifer Gordon Lovett et al. (Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1994).

Auguste Rodin

French, 1840–1917

Man with Serpent

c. 1886


Height: 27 1/2 in. (69.9 cm)

Acquired by Sterling Clark, 1914