“Kiss” by Auguste Rodin: What Makes the Sculpture Unique

Auguste Rodin. Kiss.

At first glance, the sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) may seem quite ordinary to us. The kiss of two naked people in marble will surprise few people now.

But for its time, the end of the 19th century, the work was extraordinary.

And it’s NOT even about the nudity of the figures. After all, at that time, sculptures were created in the likeness of ancient masterpieces. So, nude was a common thing.

Raymond Geyrard. Daphnis and Chloe. 1855.
Raymond Geyrard. Daphnis and Chloe. 1855. Marble. 153 cm (height). Louvre, Paris.

Still, Rodin’s “Kiss’ is somewhat different from other works of the 19th century.

Rodin and Geyrard
Left: Auguste Rodin. Kiss. 1882. Marble. 182 cm (height). Rodin Museum, Paris. Right: Raymond Geyrard. Daphnis and Chloe. 1855. Marble. 153 cm (height). Louvre, Paris.

Who are the heroes of the sculpture “Kiss”

Before moving on to the peculiarities of sculpture, it is important to understand whom the sculptor actually portrayed.

This is Francesca and Paolo. Both are representatives of the noble families of Romagna, rich lands of modern Italy. Their story is as sad as the story of Romeo and Juliet. With one difference: they really existed (lived in the 13th century). Really kissed. And, alas, they died together because of their love.

Francesca was married to Paolo’s older brother, Giovanni Malatesta. They were married for convenience: this marriage made it possible to strengthen the power in Ravenna to Francesca’s father.

Giovanni was a cripple from birth. He limped, was ugly. So Francesca was misled in order to exclude her refusal to marry him. At that time, the practice of absentee marriage was widespread. Future husband’s representative could come to the wedding and sign a prenuptial agreement for the real fiance.

The younger brother, Paolo, was chosen as such a representative. He was handsome and young. Of course, Francesca agreed to marry a beautiful young man. All the relatives at the wedding, at the insistence of the girl’s father, “forgot” to warn her that Paolo is already married to another woman and he is only a representative of her fiancé.

And then imagine: Francesca came to the castle to her husband and found, instead of the beautiful Paolo, some kind of unknown to her Giovanni! But she had already fallen in love with Paolo. He also felt sympathy. For this reason, he often visited his brother and his wife.

Once Paolo and Francesca were reading a book about the love of Lancelot, Knight of the Round Table and Queen Ginevra, wife of King Arthur.

Their story so excited their imaginations that they looked at each other and could not resist kissing.

Auguste Rodin. Kiss. Detail

At that moment, Giovanni burst into the room. In a fit of jealousy, he stabbed both of them with his sword.

The story of the book was invented by Dante. The great writer is their contemporary. He even knew the Francesca’s brother personally. And literally everyone knew the story of her love and death in the 13th-14th centuries! It was incredible for everyone.

So, Dante meets the souls of Francesca and Paolo in Hell in his “Divine Comedy”. There Francesca told him how they kissed while reading a book about the love of the knight and the queen.

But the rest of the story is truthful. Only it was a little more complicated. It was not for nothing that Giovanni ran in and immediately stabbed the unfortunate. He was informed about the suspicious intimacy of his wife with his brother a few days before. So he prepared to catch them off guard.

Francesca had a chance to survive. The husband did not want to kill her, as he himself was in love with her. But she stepped between him and Paolo as Giovanni raised his hand to strike. According to contemporaries, he, not having time to stop, pierced both with one sword …

Imagine, the young woman was deceived by her own father, without even showing the true fiance, her husband killed her. And then she was also sent to Hell for a kiss with the one whom she actually married (as she believed, Paolo was her fiancé). Well, okay, this is to the question of ideas about morality in those days …

The history of Francesca and Paolo in art

By the way, this story inspired not only Rodin. Many artists portrayed an unhappy couple. Someone else before the fatal kiss, like Feuerbach:

Anselm von Feuerbach. Francesca and Paolo.
Anselm von Feuerbach. Francesca and Paolo. 1864. 137 x 100 cm. Oil on canvas. Schack Collection, Munich.

Someone, like Rodin, portrayed a couple during a kiss, like the Pre-Raphaelite Rossetti:

Gabriel Rossetti. Francesca and Paolo.
Gabriel Rossetti. Francesca and Paolo. 1867. 43 x 36 cm.Water color, gouache, pencil. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

They also portrayed the tragedy that had already happened, like Cabanel:

Alexander Cabanel. Death of Francesca and Paolo.
Alexander Cabanel. Death of Francesca and Paolo. 1870. 184 x 255 cm.Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Often they were depicted in Dante’s Hell, doomed to eternally circle in a whirlwind of other sinful souls:

George Frederick Watts. Francesca and Paolo. 1870.
George Frederick Watts. Francesca and Paolo. 1870. 66 x 52 cm. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Manchester, England.

What makes all these picturesque images different from Rodin’s? Except that they are created in 2D, and the latter is a sculpture?

Comparison of images of Francesca and Paolo

Artists portrayed their heroes … in clothes! Someone tried to recreate the costumes of the Dante era. And some depicted more modern dresses (like Feuerbach). But Rodin’s lovers are nude!

The sculptor, of course, worked under the influence of antiquity. But this had a special meaning. After all, he called the work not like the others – “Francesca and Paolo”. But generally – “Kiss”. Therefore, he depicted the heroes without clothes, so that the costumes were not a reference to a specific era.

He did this because he wanted to focus our attention on the emotions of the characters, and not on their story. But not only with this.

And so we just got to what makes this sculpture an incredible phenomenon of its time.

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What is the peculiarity of the technique of creating the sculpture “Kiss”

The sculptor portrayed the characters as physically beautiful and young. However, he did not idealize them and did not make them a god and a goddess.

We see the too wide figure of Paolo, and his sloping back of the head. And Francesca, although beautiful, but still her body is not polished to an incredible smoothness and shine. Her curves are similar to the outlines of a real woman.

Compare the two sculptures of the Academician and Rodin again and the difference becomes obvious.

Roden and Geyrard
Left: Auguste Rodin. Kiss. 1882. Marble. 182 cm (height). Rodin Museum, Paris. Right: Raymond Geyrard. Daphnis and Chloe. 1855. Marble. 153 cm (height). Louvre, Paris.

Now comes the most interesting part.

I already mentioned above that Rodin really wanted to convey the emotions of the characters at that moment. After all, their kiss was one and only short. But in this moment of love and intimacy, they experienced incredible sensations!

Photo of a detail of the sculpture "The Kiss".
Photo of a detail of the sculpture “The Kiss”.

But how can this be conveyed in stone?

Rodin found the answer in … impressionism.

After all, it was the Impressionists who were experts in conveying the sensation “here and now”, in the embodiment of one moment. But only with paint.

Berthe Morisot. Summer day. 1879.
Berthe Morisot. Summer day. 1879. Oil on canvas. 46 x 75 cm. National Gallery of London.

To convey the moment, it was important to work quickly, en plein air. So, inevitably it was necessary to leave part of the space unfinished.

Yes, it was quite possible to bring the matter to the end in the studio. But such incompleteness actually came in handy, since it conveyed the peculiarities of our vision. At every moment we keep one thing in focus, the rest remains unclear and even blurred due to peripheral vision.

Rodin also left only the figures “in focus”. And polished them. But the stone on which they are sitting was left rough.

Let’s return to the impressionists. They did not hide brushstrokes. When you convey an impression, it is certainly not up to smoothing the surface. On Morisot’s painting, we see every stroke living its own life. And only in aggregate and at a distance do they create an image. But this negligence also emphasizes the feeling of “here and now.”

Berthe Morisot. Summer day. Detail

Rodin also decided not to hide how he worked. After all, his sculpture was made using a pointing machine. With the help of it, a student or assistant carves a sculpture out of a stone according to the master’s model. And only when the sculpture is completely ready, the master himself brings it to the desired concept and polishes it.

Now look at these round marks on the sculpture (on Francesca’s cheek and shoulder, as well as on Paolo’s body in the lower left corner).

Photo of a detail of the sculpture "The Kiss". 
Photo of a detail of the sculpture “The Kiss”.

Such marks are left by the pointing machine. And, of course, they are then removed by polishing. But … Rodin left them!

Of course, he had the opportunity to “erase” them. He did not work en plein air, like Impressionists. And he was not limited in time. But he didn’t not hide his “strokes”, preferring negligence to ideality. So he tried to catch a moment of passion between lovers.

And one moment. Impressionists had no time for elaboration of details. It was important to capture the moment. And Rodin did the same. He drew lines with a chisel on the heads of the heroes, indicating the hair. But it leaves them without softening the deepening.

Photo of a detail of the sculpture "The Kiss". 

Also, Morisot depicted hands of his heroes with two or three brushstrokes, without going into details.

In the fragment above, we see a book in Paolo’s hands. It is also carved very schematically. Well, not to the details, when it is important to show the first and last kiss of unfortunate lovers …

Yes, it was not for nothing that Rodin was called an impressionist sculptor.

A little more about the history of the creation of The Kiss

It all started with the Gates of Hell (based on Dante’s Divine Comedy). They were commissioned for a new museum in Paris.

Auguste Rodin. Gates of Hell (plaster model).
Auguste Rodin. Gates of Hell (plaster model). 1880-1917. 635 cm (height). Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The museum was never built, the order was canceled. And Rodin couldn’t stop. He has worked on doors all his life. And later he turned some of their elements into full-fledged sculptures. The Kiss for instance. And also the famous “Thinker”. Found it at the gate?

And one more interesting fact. Rodin made copies of his sculptures. Including The Kiss. So do not be surprised if you see The Kiss in the Tate Museum in London (also in marble), and in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow (in bronze), and in many other places. Even in the Tuileries Garden in Paris.

Copies of Kiss in Moscow and Paris
Left: Auguste Rodin. Kiss (artist’s copy). Bronze. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Right: Photo of a sculpture by Auguste Rodin in the Tuileries Garden in Paris.


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Auguste Rodin. Kiss: photo by Gertjan R. – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27The_Kiss%27,_Auguste_Rodin_frontal.jpg
Raymond Geyrard. Daphnis and Chloe –
The Kiss by Auguste Rodin (detail): photo by Thibsweb – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31542918
The Kiss by Auguste Rodin (detail): photo by LanguageTeaching –  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64994369
The Kiss by Auguste Rodin (detail) –
Anselm von Feuerbach. Francesca and Paolo – https://ru.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Файл:Feuerbach_Paolo_und_Francesca.jpg
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Paolo and Francesca da Rimini –
Alexander Cabanel. Death of Francesca and Paolo –
George Frederick Watts. Francesca and Paolo –
Berthe Morisot. Summer day –
The Kiss by Auguste Rodin (detail) –
Auguste Rodin. Gates of Hell (plaster model) –
Auguste Rodin. Kiss (artist’s copy). Bronze –

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