Drawing on Fresh Interpretations

Mar 17, 2017

Auguste Rodin, Study for “The Gates of Hell: Shades Speaking to Dante,” c. 1883. Black ink, gray wash, and white gouache over graphite on tan wove paper with ruled lines. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.916.

The exhibition Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium (January 21–May 7, 2017) benefits from the contributions of more than a dozen Harvard students who took part in recent seminars taught by Harvard professor Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Elizabeth Rudy, the Harvard Art Museums’ Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints. This article is part of a series detailing new discoveries and perspectives presented by the students who worked with Lajer-Burcharth and Rudy.

As part of her work in the Spring 2016 undergraduate seminar co-taught by Lajer-Burcharth and Rudy, Eloise Lynton ’17, a history of art and architecture concentrator, chose to look closely at Auguste Rodin’s Study for “The Gates of Hell: Shades Speaking to Dante.” Made in preparation for Rodin’s sculpture of the same name, the drawing bears an inscription from the artist that identifies the subject as being from Canto 25 of Dante’s Inferno.

There are two moments of serpent transformation in this canto. Some experts had thought the primary moment—and the moment of transformation represented in Rodin’s work—was when Cianfa, a sinner man-serpent, attacked another sinner and they melded together into one creature.

However, when Lynton read the Inferno canto, she found a similar moment just a few lines below, in which a serpent attacks a man named Buoso, a bystander to the previous event involving Cianfa. In this attack, the serpent buried himself in a wound in the man’s side, which caused the man to “fume” and the smoke to “comingle” with the snake and the man, Lynton said. After attacking and engulfing this man, the serpent then began to slowly transform into a human, while Buoso transformed into a serpent. “It seemed to me that this was, in fact, the moment Rodin’s image illustrated,” Lynton said.

After studying the drawing in person at the Art Study Center, Lynton said, “I was convinced that this second moment was the one being depicted by the drawing, for several reasons.” Besides identifying a French inscription that says “de Bose” (seemingly referring to Buoso), Lynton said she found the description of the transformation between man and snake in Dante’s text to be strikingly similar to Rodin’s drawing. Finally, she made a connection between the “smoke” mentioned by Dante, which “streams,” “fumes,” and “furls” around the transformation, and the white gouache and gray wash on Rodin’s drawing. (Because of these characteristics, the drawing is included within the exhibition’s subcategory “Stain,” for the ways in which it is meant to draw attention to marks that act as indices of the artist’s body on the page, and that make the page itself appear as a bodily surface through pooling, pulsating, and bruising.)

Making this connection changed how Lynton understood the work. “Once I related the correct passage to the image, it became very gratifying to complete a visual analysis,” Lynton said. “Dante’s words worked so beautifully with Rodin’s image and gave the drawing an entirely new meaning.”

 Lynton shared her ideas with Lajer-Burcharth, Rudy, and the graduate student who had written about the drawing for the exhibition catalogue. Ultimately, she said, “we incorporated the new information I had found into the catalogue text.”

Lynton added that she hopes her interpretations, and those of her peers, can help visitors “enhance their understanding of these works.”