About the artwork
According to Greek legend the Danaids were the fifty daughters of King Danaus, who was in conflict with his brother Aegyptos, father of fifty sons. The sons demanded to marry the daughters and in revenge Danaus ordered his daughters to kill their bridegrooms on their wedding night. As a result of their crimes, the Danaids were sentenced to the underworld where their punishment was the futile task of perpetually trying to fill leaky jugs with water. In his sculpture Auguste Rodin represented one of the Danaid in tearful frustration, water streaming from her broken jar, as her despairing, but graceful, figure mimics the contours of the rock over which she lies slumped.
The French sculptor Rodin first started working on the subject in 1885 and may originally have intended it as one of the many small figures swarming over ‘The Gates of Hell’, the twenty-foot high bronze doors to the proposed new Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. The Gates were his first major commission from the French state ordered in 1880. Although the Gates were never completed, and the Museum as planned was never opened, the Gates provided Rodin with many themes and motifs, which he developed, varied and enlarged on throughout the rest of his career. Their title referred to the ‘Gates of Paradise’ sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) for the Cathedral Baptistry in Florence.
Rodin’s doors, however, were inspired by the 14th-century Italian poet Dante’s vision of hell, Inferno, and were meant to symbolise humanity in chaos. Many of the figures represented suffering or sinful souls from legend, history and literature. The huddled pose of the Danaid is typical of the despairing attitudes of other figures on the doors, who clamber over and dissolve into each other in sensuous, sometimes sexually ambiguous, forms. Rodin’s bronze figure of Eve, also on display from the Walker’s collection, is another sculpture originally intended to decorate the Gates.
By 1889 Rodin had produced an enlarged and a marble version of the subject and given the figure its title. Rodin’s first marble version of Danaid was first exhibited in 1889, alongside work by Monet. That 1889 exhibition did much to establish Rodin’s reputation in France. The marble version of Danaid inspired the poet Ranier Maria Rilke to describe it in 1903:
“It is wonderful to walk slowly about this marble, to follow the long line that curves about the richly unfolded roundness of the back to the face, [which] loses itself in the stone as though in a great weeping. … There were undulations without end.”
The desire to move around the figure inspired Rodin to provide James Smith, the owner of the Walker’s Danaid, with a turntable with which to appreciate the sculpture better.
James Smith, after he had seen a marble version of the 'Danaid' (now in the Musée Rodin, Paris). But due to an accident in casting at the foundry it was not delivered until early in 1903 to The Knowle, the Smith’s house (now demolished) in Blundellsands. James Smith (1831-1923) and his second wife Betty (d.1927) were among the earliest of Rodin’s British patrons.
Like other pioneering British collectors the Smiths were first attracted to Rodin’s small decorative bronzes, which were suitable for display in the cluttered domestic setting of a Victorian house, such as The Knowle, amongst the Japanese lacquer furniture and Chinese and Egyptian ‘curios’ that the Smiths also owned. By November 1905, whereas there was only one Rodin sculpture in an English public collection, (the 'St John the Baptist Preaching', presented to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1902), the Smiths probably owned seven Rodin sculptures (including a small bronze cast of the now famous 'The Kiss'), six of which the Smiths bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery in 1923 and 1927.