Durig and Rodin
The following is an excerpt from a larger paper on the problem of forgeries of Rodin drawings. I previously posted a very rough version here. For the sake of clarity I have cut out my footnotes, if you are interested in my sources email me. Please don't reproduce this essay without my permission.
Though his exploits gained him a certain level of fame in the 1930s, Ernst Durig was never to reach the artistic heights of his idol, Auguste Rodin. Born in Switzerland in 1894 to devout Catholic parents, Ernst Durig’s driving ambition was to become a great sculptor. At age eighteen Durig hitchhiked to Paris with hopes of meeting the great Rodin. He claimed throughout his life to have been Rodin's last student. Among Rodin’s published correspondence is a letter from 1905 supposedly from the master instructing “Monsieur Durig” about treatment of a portrait bust of Marcelin Berthelot. While Rodin did indeed sculpt a bust of Berthelot in 1905, it seems unlikely that Durig was the original recipient of this letter, as he would have been nine years old at the time. In a 1948 pamphlet of his sculpture, Durig published another letter written by his idol praising Durig’s talent. To prove his relationship to the artist Durig apparently inserted his name in the body of an authentic letter written by Rodin. While it remains uncertain just how Durig acquired Rodin’s correspondence, his alleged relationship with the artist was at the least exaggerated. However false his claims, Durig did meet Rodin. He owned a photograph of himself as a young man posing next to the sculptor, allegedly taken in Rome in 1915.
It wasn’t enough for Durig to be known as the last student of Auguste Rodin. He seemed to feel the need to surpass the legend. Durig spread the story that he was asked to take over the sculpting of a bust of Pope Benedictus XV from Rodin in 1915, after Rodin’s use of calipers to take measurements angered the pope. Durig claimed that his finished marble was placed in the museum of the Vatican. Rodin, who Durig would continue to use as something of a calling card for the rest of his life, died in 1917. Durig was twenty-three.
According to Dorothy Seiberling in Life Magazine, Durig spent several years with the Papal Guard before settling in Florence, where he was arrested and spent several months in an asylum for harassing an American woman. After his family secured his release, Durig made the acquaintance of the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, who had served as Rodin’s secretary. Rilke introduced him to a wealthy widow whom Durig married. Durig sculpted Pope Pius XI in 1924 and his sculpture The Marathon Runner was “acclaimed by Mussolini as Rome’s most outstanding sculpture of 1926.” Sometime in the late 1920s Durig and his family left Europe for the United States.
Active in Washington, D.C. from about 1930, Durig attained tabloid notoriety in the city. In 1933 his wife reported him missing. There was no sign of him for a month, and the day after his equally mysterious return he and his family were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent. The major D.C. newspapers published a number of sensational articles surrounding the events, with photographs of Durig's possessions and sculptures set out on the curb. The articles at the time claimed that Durig attempted to destroy many of his works in anger. Both Durig and his wife made paranoid comments to reporters regarding a "powerful political enemy" who was hindering Durig's artistic career.
Though he claimed to be Rodin's pupil Ernst Durig failed to absorb any lessons from the artist. While his busts do capture a likeness they are often lifeless. Closer in style to social realism than to Rodin, Durig’s figurative sculpture is mediocre and derivative. The Peace Monument, for example, features a woman gripping a sagging soldier. The composition is awkward, the soldier’s bent legs stiff. There is little sense of the strong emotion Rodin conveyed through his modeling of the figure.
Throughout his career Durig continued to pursue notables, sculpting Mussolini, Harry S. Truman and the poet Tagore, though he was paid for few of these. Offering to sculpt a famous figure for his personal collection, Durig would grow angry when the subject then declined to purchase the bust. In 1937 Durig and his family were present at the dedication of his Peace Memorial in Greenwood WI, for which the city paid him the cost of materials. Durig's wife and adopted daughter were killed in a car accident sometime after this, possibly around 1950. Durig's life went downhill after their death. In 1958 he was admitted to the hospital suffering from malnutrition and the next year he was taken to St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, where he died on November 4, 1962.
After Durig’s death a chest of papers was discovered in a storage room at St. Elizabeth’s. The find included many letters written by Rodin and over a hundred "Rodin" drawings. Sotheby's initially authenticated the drawings in 1965 and agreed to auction them to repay the city for Durig's care. By March of 1965, however, Sotheby's declined to auction the drawings due to questions about the attribution. Several months later Life Magazine published their expose of Durig's forgery.
Exhibitions of Rodin’s works on paper were common throughout the period Durig was active. Claiming they were a gift, Durig staged exhibitions of his personal collection of Rodin drawings in Washington, D.C. in 1934 and at Leonard Clayton Gallery in New York in 1937. Of the latter show a reviewer writes “[t]hat Rodin was a master is...evident in these dashing sketches...” which must have pleased Durig immensely, if these were indeed his own work.
Kirk Varnedoe dates the start of Durig’s career as a forger in the United States to 1928. In his discussion of the major forgers of Rodin's drawings Varnedoe describes the characteristics of Durig’s work. He wrote that Durig had no preference for a particular size, media or format and imitated different periods of Rodin’s career. Durig did not shy away from difficult poses, often recreating authentic, published drawings. Though Durig grasped the importance of Rodin’s achievement, stating that “[t]hese later drawings of Rodin’s are better than the early ones because they are more simple and direct, and therefore, more powerful...” he was unable to convey this in his forgeries. While Rodin’s work on paper showed a reduction to essentials and undying curiosity about the human form, Durig focused on details over the whole and displayed no sense of the effect of gravity on the body. His figures typically appear to float unmoored on the page. Unlike Rodin, in Durig’s drawings male-female embraces and combinations of three women are common. As with the other forgers Durig had a favorite body type: large, muscular women with broad shoulders and thick joints, the structure of their bodies ambiguous. The nipples of his women in profile are drawn as separate small circles, an as a loose loop in frontal views. Though not as formulaic as other Rodin forgers, Durig displayed a varied ability with anatomy and tended toward quick, broken marks that lack Rodin’s close observation. His washes are more dense and even than Rodin’s, the flesh often too pink or yellow.
Ernst Durig failed to gain success on the strength of Rodin’s name. Unable to support himself with his legitimate work or his career as a forger, Durig died penniless. Several writers have commented that Durig’s forgery seems to have been motivated more from an overwhelming hero-worship than greed. Despite his failures, he achieved some measure of immortality by the very fact that his forgeries continue to be traded on the market. For decades, Durig’s fame as Rodin’s student was unquestioned proof of authenticity of his forgeries, since they supposedly came directly to Durig from the artist. According to Varnedoe, Durig’s “Rodins” are often found in large groups and have been frequently published, sold in galleries and at auction, and placed in museum collections.
text copyright 2005 Amy Watson