In 1880 Rodin got a commission to do the portal of the then planned muse des Arts Decoratifs located on the Cour de Comptes which was damaged by fire in 1871. This was after France bought Rodin’s plaster and bronze work “The Age of Bronze. The ambitious museum never materialized and in 1900 the Gare d’ Orsay and the Hotel d’ Orsay was opened on the location where the Musee des Arts Decoraatifs was supposed to be constructed. It was to be built to coincide with the Universal Exhibition in 1900. The Musee d’ Orsay was opened to the public when the railway station was discontinued. The Gates of Hell plaster reconstruction has been in the museum since 1986. About 106 years after the relief was supposed to be built on that same location.
The Gates of Hell by Rodin is a relief which depicts scenes inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. This literary piece has been the subject of several visual artists like William Blake who made an illustration of the Divine Comedy in 1820. John Flaxman Delacroix (The Barque of Dante) in 1822. Ingres Jean Baptiste Carpeaux who made Ugolino in 1863. Writers like Chateubriand, Stendhal, Balzac and Hugo also had their interpretations of Dante.
Rodin chose to focus on Divine Comedy’s Inferno scenes, though much of Dante’s Commedia also showed Purgatorio and Paradiso. Dante, who is losing faith, is taken down to the nine circles that depict sin and punishment where he meets the Devil. He then ascends to the mountain of purgatory and then climbs to heaven where he is joined by his wife Beatrice; the final stop of the journey is when Dante meets God. In that sojourn to hell the poet Virgil leads Dante to a process of self-discovery.
In the relief, the great artist Rodin embellishes the comedy with his own perspective taken from the poem “Les Fleurs du Mal,” which was created by Charles Baudelaire in 1857. Baudelaire depicts man as obsessed with passions that is both his grace and burden. Desire is infinite and no man is ever satisfied. There is a romantic conflict which would haunt Rodin’s creations until the late 1800s. It was Rodin who sketched ‘Les Fleurs du Mal.” for Edition Gallimard.
Rodin added some insights from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his Gates of Hell. These include centaurs abducting women in the tympamum. The symbolists were fans of Ovid’s work as it shows the excesses of the Golden Age which was a result of greed, violence and lust. Ovid did not just limited the symbols to the female character Eve as interpreted by Christianity but he also included man. Despite Ovid’s influence in his work, Rodin still used the damned women in The Gates of Hell to depict the mixture of lust, sin and punishment. There are also the Sirens which depict the three furies whom Dante saw in Canto IX. The sirens were now portrayed not as evil-looking characters but pretty seductive maidens who tried to seduce Odysseus. The Gates of Hell is not just a representation of Dante’s work but also came to be Rodin’s own artistic platform.