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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.

Rodin preferred to work from non-professional models, who were willing to move uninhibitedly around his studio. Once he caught an action that could inspire a sculpture he would then draw and model it in watercolour and clay. The possible model for Danaid was the young Camille Claudel, whom he first met in 1883 as a 19 year-old in an art class he was teaching. Despite parental disapproval she wanted to be a sculptor, soon joining Rodin’s studio and becoming his lover. In the five years that she was an assistant in his studio Rodin used her as a model and consulted her on many matters.

Even after he broke with her in 1897 he continued to admire and promote her work. His relationship with her may have added to the abandonment of Danaid ‘s pose, which is one of the most sensuous that Rodin created. Rodin’s admiration of the female figure and notorious reputation as a womaniser was reflected in a comment recalled by the British painter William Rothenstein when Rodin exclaimed in 1894, 'People say I think too much about women.' Adding after a moment’s pause 'Yet, after all, what else is there more important to think about?'. 

In France Rodin’s 'Age of Bronze' (1876-7) figure of a nude man was considered so life-like that he was accused of having created it from a plaster-cast of a real person rather than modelling it himself. In Britain his sculpture was principally admired for its realistic modelling, attention to surface textures and impassioned poses.

His artistic reputation in Britain was spread via a number of British authors, painters and sculptors. Both Harry Bates (1850-1899), whose 'Mors Janua Vitae' is owned by the Walker, and William Goscombe John (1860-1952), whose 'Age – Study of an Old Woman’s Head' can be seen in the Walker’s ground-floor Sculpture Gallery, were students of Rodin in 1883-1884 and 1890 respectively. By the end of the 19th Century symbolism, based on dreams and the power of imagination was overtaking naturalistic impressionism in Rodin’s work. In 1900 Rodin received international recognition when the Paris World Fair hosted a pavilion showing 150 of his works. Thereafter he regularly visited London, whose collections of Greek antiquities, especially the Elgin marbles at the British Museum, he greatly admired.

Rodin’s fame was spread further through his meetings with collectors, celebrities and royalty, who were invited to visit him at one of his various Parisian studios. From the mid-1890s his studio cum salon (where he displayed finished pieces), cum workshop, (large enough to house 50 or so assistants), was at Meudon, his villa on the outskirts of Paris near the river Seine, where he often worked modelling his clay through the night. Meudon may have been where Rodin met James Smith, a Liverpool wine merchant (thought the best judge of claret in England by his friends) and his wife Betty, on their first visit to Rodin’s studio/salon in 1903.

Although Rodin produced the first versions of the Danaid theme between 1885 and 1889, the Walker’s bronze cast was ordered in 1901 by 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.

An mp3 recording of curator Xanthe Brooke's gallery talk on Auguste Rodin's 'Danaid' is available online.