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Henry Tonks – Pastel Portrait Of Auguste Rodin

What a delight to come across this pastel in the Tate portraying the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The artist, Henry Tonks, is not one I’m super familiar with. I know of him as a teacher at the Slade School of Art as his name arises when looking into the biographies of more well-known artists like Stanley Spencer and Augustus and Gwen John for example. I certainly didn’t know his work or his background. 

Well, it turns out he was trained as a surgeon who later became an expert draughtsman with an interest in figurative work. He returned to his medical career at the start of World War I and then became an official war artist in 1918.

But let’s get back to this pastel by Henry Tonks.

Here it is in its full glory!

Henry Tonks, "Auguste Rodin," 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK.
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK.

Now let’s take a closer look.

One of the things I revel in is when I can see the hand of the artist in an artwork. You can see in this closeup where Tonks readjusted his drawing of Rodin’s sleeve. You can also see the same thing happening in the trousers at the knee. Look carefully and you’ll see other adjustments throughout the piece.

As I find hands one of the more difficult things to draw, I’m always pulled to them in paintings. Here Henry Tonks expresses Rodin’s hands beautifully as he captures the gestures of almost certainly moving hands! Can you see how little is actually delineated yet we read them for what they are meant to be. And all with a few lines with a wee addition of colour.

Next, let’s look at the man’s feet. 

On the left, the smudge of light grey pastel on the shoe reveals the shine while a few linear strokes on the sock reveal their texture.

Henry Tonks, Auguste Rodin, 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK - detail. Shoe on the left
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK – detail. Shoe on the left

What we see in the shoe on the right is a beautifully foreshortened foot with the feeling of the weight of the leg on it. There’s pressure on this foot! You can also see how the artist worked negatively to create the concrete shape of the shoe.

Henry Tonks, "Auguste Rodin," 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK - detail. Shoe on the right
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK – detail. Shoe on the right

The next close-up shows a cast shadow thrown by one of the legs. It reveals to us the direction and quality of light which appears to be cool and diffuse, and probably coming from a nearby window. This cropping also shows three of the colours used by Tonks in this piece – grey, yellow, and black. A very limited palette used so effectively! (He also used a bit of reddish brown which we see in the skin colour of hands and face.) 

Henry Tonks, "Auguste Rodin," 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK - detail. Cast shadow
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK – detail. Cast shadow

Let’s not forget Rodin’s face! A few lines that show ear, eyes, nose, and the edge of the large moustache that covers part of his mouth. His beard looks soft against the blackness of the clothing. Look at the way the edge of the cap changes from a hard edge where it meets the front part of the forehead to a softer one as it curves around the head encountering the hair peeking out from beneath. With so little, Tonks shows us the structure of the face below the skin – the eye sockets and the cheekbone.

Henry Tonks, "Auguste Rodin," 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK - detail. Head
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK – detail. Head

Very little is shown of the chair. It only exists as a prop for Rodin. Tonks has indicated two legs (rather than four) and if we look carefully, we can see the chair legs don’t even appear to be in the correct position. In fact, there’s not much space for an actual chair. So what’s supporting Rodin?! Does that matter? What’s really important is the figure and the personality it reveals. It’s only when we look closely that we see this anomaly. But so what?! This is a study, drawn from life, probably with conversation happening between the artist and sitter. The figure is drawn beautifully. I think a lesson can be learned here by the perfectionists among us! 🙋‍♀️

Henry Tonks, "Auguste Rodin," 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK - detail. Chair legs
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK – detail. Chair legs

And here’s the whole pastel piece again. Look more carefully as the parts come together into the whole. You can see how Rodin leans against a hidden support, presumably the back of the chair. The arm on the left appears to rest on a chair arm.

Henry Tonks, "Auguste Rodin," 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK.
Henry Tonks, “Auguste Rodin,” 1914, pastel on paper, 53.7 x 40 cm, Tate, UK.

In my membership IGNITE! and my coaching group Accelerant, I often cringe when I hear students separate the value of a study from that of a finished piece. They believe that a study isn’t as “worthy” as a completed and intentional painting. Well, for me this study is a great example of the lie of that. I’d take this home as a finished and worthy work any day!!

I’d love to know what you notice about this pastel so be sure to leave a comment!

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. You may be interested in reading the Tate’s catalogue entry:
“This and N03018 [of Madame Rodin] were done in the early weeks of the First World War, when the Rodins were staying as refugees with Mr and Mrs Charles Hunter at Hill Hall, near Epping. Hone writes that ‘the likenesses were good; but Tonks did not disguise his disappointment with Rodin. “Why I have never heard him say anything except ‘Dieu, que les arbres sont beaux’.”’ Rodin was then in his seventy-third year and had become a little senile.”

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Comments

8 thoughts on “Henry Tonks – Pastel Portrait Of Auguste Rodin”

  1. Thank you Gail. A masterful commentary that really helped me to understand the difference between looking at a painting and really seeing it. What a joy!

    1. Thanks Kathy!
      And of course it’s 1918 lol. I will correct that!
      And by the french, I think you mean from the PS – “Dieu, que les arbres sont beaux” which would mean, God, the trees are beautiful.” (Which of course doesn’t say very much!)

  2. I love almost monochromatic color use of this painting. I tend to use too many colors ( I love colors so much ), but I am trying to apply just a few colors to my charcoal drawings right now. This painting helps to see how it could be done. Thanks for showing.

    1. I love how seeing Tonks’s piece has helped you with your own work Junko! Great idea to slowly add a few colours to your charcoal work as a way to limit your palette!

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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