Illustrated companion

'The Kiss' has its origins in Rodin's first major public commission, given to him in 1880 by the French State. This was for a huge bronze doorway, covered in relief sculpture illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy, for a proposed new Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Rodin decided to confine his choice of subjects to Hell, the first part of the Divine Comedy, and the doorway became known as 'The Gates of Hell'. From about 1880-86 Rodin poured energy and inspiration into this project and although the museum was never built and 'The Gates of Hell' never definitively completed, they remained a repository of ideas for the artist and are the source of some of his best known individual works.

The group of 'The Kiss' first appears in the third of Rodin's early small clay models for 'The Gates of Hell', together with only two other recognisable groups. One of these, the figure now known as 'The Thinker', was originally intended to represent Dante himself, the other, a man holding a dead youth (his son) in his arms, represents a character from Hell called Ugolino. The three groups are arranged in a triangle, with 'The Thinker' at the top over the doors and the other two opposite each other, on the left and right-hand panels of the doors. The gateway was later to become populated with hundreds of figures, but these three clearly had a fundamental symbolic significance for Rodin, representing sexual love, parenthood and death, and intellectual activity and creation.

There is no doubt that in 'The Kiss' Rodin invented one of the great images in art of human sexual love, whose power derives from its beautifully judged balance between a high degree of idealisation in the depiction of the bodies of the couple and the equally high degree of eroticism with which Rodin has nevertheless succeeded in imbuing the work. The erotic edge of 'The Kiss' is sharpened when its subject from Dante is known. The couple are Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini. Francesca was married to Paolo's brother but fell in love with Paolo, himself a married man. They were discovered and murdered by Francesca's outraged husband. In Dante, Francesca recounts how she and Paolo were first moved to physical passion by reading together the Arthurian legend of Lancelot - when they read of Lancelot's first embrace of Queen Guinevere they could resist each other no longer. This is the moment that Rodin has depicted. In the sculpture the book can just be made out still clutched in the surprised Paolo's left hand.

Rodin made the first separate version of 'The Kiss' in 1882, a half-life size bronze, and in 1887 was commissioned by the French state to produce a version in marble on a scale larger than life. This was finally completed and exhibited in Paris in 1898, and is now in the Mus?e Rodin in Paris. The Tate Gallery version was made for an American collector of Greek marble sculpture living in England, Edward Perry Warren. Another marble version is in the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and a fourth, produced after Rodin's death, is in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, U.S.A.

Rodin used a studio system for the production of his marbles. They were carved by professional marble sculptors under his supervision with finishing touches by the master. The Tate Gallery version of 'The Kiss' was carved by a sculptor named Rigaud and finished by Rodin himself.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.150