Unheated Exchanges – An Irishman’s Diary about Rodin, Debussy, and the fuel shortages of the first World War
Auguste Rodin in 1914. Photograph: Bundesarchiv
By the time he died, 100 years ago today, Auguste Rodin had spent 37 years working intermittently on a monumental sculpture called The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. A cast of it now stands in the beautiful Rodin Museum in Paris, and there are versions in several other galleries too.
But the great sculptor’s final days were dominated not so much by fire as by the lack of it. For despite all his success, he shared a problem common to most French people in the later winters of the first World War. He had no way of heating his house: a hill-top villa at Meudon, in the outer Paris suburbs. So his death, at age 77, was at least hastened by the cold.
In a bitter irony, Rodin had sought refuge from the chill in what is now the museum named after him. The former Hôtel Biron, it had been home to his workshop for a time, before the state acquired it to house the collection he had donated. And it could have housed the sculptor himself, temporarily, but decided otherwise.
Rodin died of cold... while his sculptures, which he had given to the nation, were kept warmly housed in a centrally heated museum at public expense
A few years later, in 1923, Rodin’s secretary shocked Paris by publishing an account of his demise.
A then-new magazine called Time summarised her claims: “A book by Mlle Tirel [...] states definitively that Rodin died of cold, neglected by friends and officials of the state, while his sculptures, which he had given to the nation, were kept warmly housed in a centrally heated museum at public expense. His case was so desperate that he asked to be permitted to have a room in the museum – the Hotel Biron, formerly his own studio. The official in charge [...] refused. Other officials and friends promised coal but never sent it, though his situation at Meudon, ill and freezing to death, was apparently well known to all of them”.
The magazine added that “no one in a position to know the facts” had denied Mademoiselle Tirel’s charges and that her book “has the sanction of Rodin’s son”.
Perhaps some of those officials could have pleaded distraction due to other events. November 1917 was a turbulent month in France and elsewhere. Europe was reeling from the happenings in Petrograd. The disastrous Battle of Passchendaele at last ended, but with the war as bogged down as ever. Meanwhile the veteran Georges Clemenceau – almost the same age as Rodin – had just become French prime minister again, vowing to fight on.
Besides, France had already survived an even worse winter: the bone-chillingly cold one of 1916-17. With the northern mining towns of Lille and Mons behind German lines, the fuel shortage had been cruelly felt. Even in April, Parisian police had to guard the Bois de Boulogne to prevent housewives chopping down trees, while at a demonstration in the city, freezing, war-weary women demanded “coal or our men”.
Nor was Rodin the only famous artist suffering in 1917. The contemporary correspondence of composer Claude Debussy is haunted by his lack of heating. “My God, I am cold,” he wrote to one friend. “The freeze continues to be very hard on us,” he told another.
When he died in March 1918, the fighting was still so intense that he could not be given any of the public ceremonies due a famous artist
And writing to fellow composer Fauré in February 1917, he confided: “The cold, the scramble for coal, this whole life of domestic and other miseries gets me more and more down.”
Debussy was not, in any case, a well man. Although a generation younger than Rodin, he had been suffering from cancer for several years, and would not survive the war either. When he died in March 1918, the fighting was still so intense that he could not be given any of the public ceremonies due a famous artist. Instead, his cortège passed through deserted streets to Père Lachaise even as the Germans continued to bombard the city.
But that Debussy survived 1917, unlike Rodin, may in part have been thanks to a friendly coal merchant.
In the composer’s letters of that year, a Monsieur Tronquin becomes a frequent target: receiving at least four written requests for fuel between February and May, all very respectfully phrased but with varying degrees of urgency.
Coal must have been expensive then, if not priceless. But Debussy had an unusual currency to offer, and he did. One letter hints at a “token of my gratitude”.
Another mentions the “small monument” he has erected in his benefactor’s honour.
The monument was musical. And it is for this reason that Debussy’s last composition for piano was a fuel-friendly PR exercise entitled Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, or “Evenings Lit by the Blazing Coal.”