An Auguste Rodin sculpture is missing from the Glasgow Museums in Scotland — and has been for over 70 years. The work, a plaster cast of one of the six figures in the artist’s famous “The Burghers of Calais” (1884–85), was last accounted for in an outdoor exhibition at the city’s Kelvingrove Park in the fall of 1949.
News of the missing sculpture was first reported by the British daily newspaper the Times, which says it made the discovery via a Freedom of Information request that uncovered nearly 1,750 unaccounted works across the city museums.
A spokesperson for the Glasgow Life nonprofit that runs Glasgow Museums, which includes the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art, the Burrell Collection, and the Provand’s Lordship medieval house museum, among others, told Hyperallergic that Rodin’s six-and-a-half-foot depiction of the stern Jean d’Aire had suffered damage during the 1949 exhibition. The trail ends there.
“The process of recording, cataloging and caring for the Glasgow Museums Collection has improved significantly since it was founded in the 1860s,” the spokesperson said, adding that the organization introduced a centralized database 30 years ago and improved its storage facilities 20 years ago. They confirmed that 1,736 artworks are missing: 254 are listed as stolen and another 1,482 have not been seen for a “significant” amount of time despite attempts to find them. The spokesperson added that staff members have found objects in this second “unlocated” category in the past.
Museums appear largely hesitant to report missing artworks to the public. Earlier this year, the board chair of London’s British Museum told BBC that the institution has logged 2,000 missing objects, some of which were allegedly stolen by a curator in a highly publicized scandal that led to the director’s early resignation in August.
While Glasgow’s missing work is rare, there are still seven other plaster casts of Jean d’Aire in public collections. As for other mediums, one earthenware and 11 bronze versions of the complete “The Burghers of Calais” exist today.
Jérôme Le Blay, who runs the Comité Rodin that has been working for nearly two decades to create a catalogue raisonné for the artist, told Hyperallergic that though his bronze and marble works may be better known, the plasters are more important to the “artist’s spirit.”
“You can see the hand of Rodin in clay and plaster, you can see the fingerprints,” said Le Blay.
Rodin, who is perhaps best known for “The Thinker” (1903), modeled his sculptures in clay. Then he would have assistants craft the works in plaster, after which the artist would make amendments and add finishing touches.
Glasgow Museums purchased the plaster cast from Rodin in 1901. Le Blay said that Rodin was coming off a landmark 1900 exhibition in Paris that had launched him to worldwide fame.
The artist began shipping plaster sculptures to institutions internationally as a way to spread his name. Plaster was the best way for Rodin to tap into his newfound market: It was cheap, and it would only take one or two days to make a large work.
But Le Blay described a three-tiered “hierarchy” of Rodin’s sculptures: marble at the top, bronze in the middle, and plaster at the bottom. The more flexible material remained largely relegated to scholarly use until they started to be more widely appreciated in the 1980s. Le Blay cited three instances of museums using Rodin’s plaster sculptures to create bronze casts, thereby destroying the originals. (Now, Paris’s Rodin Museum is the only institution that has the right to recreate the artist’s works.) The plasters seem to finally be earning their due, and a 2021 exhibition at Tate London focused entirely on these works.
The remaining five subjects of “The Burghers of Calais” remain at the Glasgow Museums, although another was damaged as well. Associate Curator of European Art at Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts Patrick Crowley said Rodin would sometimes display his plasters outdoors in order to get a sense of how they responded to light, but continued, “It’s surprising that a plaster would be displayed in an outdoor exhibition exposed to the elements.”
“Sculptures are like cats — once you decide it’s an outdoor work, there’s really no going back,” Crowley said.
“It was 70 years ago,” Le Blay said. “C’est la vie.”