Michelangelo: Quest for Genius

Art Gallery of Ontario

October 18, 2014 – January 11, 2015

Struggle and Defiance

Michelangelo faced a lifetime of frustration and disappointment in both his professional and private lives. He was forced to do work he didn’t like, reduce the scale of favourite projects and abandon projects altogether. His was not an easy life. He constantly faced impossible deadlines, conflicting schedules, professional backstabbing, and powerful and demanding patrons who were often in conflict with one another. His homosexuality and unfulfilled yearnings for a young Florentine aristocrat brought their own suffering.

Like Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin confronted criticism and controversy over the course of his long career. “I know very well that one must fight” is how he put it. Both artists challenged the status quo with patience, persistence and exceptional creativity.


Michelangelo Cleopatra, c.1532-1533 Black chalk 23.4 x 18.2 cm Casa Buonarroti

Frustration in Love

This highly finished “presentation” drawing of Cleopatra is one of Michelangelo’s greatest works. It depicts Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, renowned for her beauty and intelligence.

Appropriately, this drawing was presented to the great love of Michelangelo’s life, the Florentine aristocrat Tommaso de Cavalieri, who was also praised for his looks and learning. The two met when Michelangelo was 57 and Tommaso was a teenager. Despite the passionate sonnets the artist wrote to the young man, and their lifelong friendship, experts believe the relationship remained platonic. When, decades later, a Medici duke demanded Michelangelo’s drawing as a gift, Tommaso declared, “It’s like losing one of my children.”

Like Michelangelo, Cleopatra was frustrated in love. She killed herself with a poisonous snake following the suicide of her lover. Michelangelo’s love of Tommaso also was dangerous and painful.

Curiously, the drawing of Cleopatra’s death on the back of this work was only discovered in 1988.

Façade of San Lorenzo in Florence

Michelangelo, Project for the Façade of San Lorenzo in Florence, 1516 Black chalk, pen and ink with brown wash 72.4 x 87.0 cm Casa Buonarroti

Struggles in Architecture

Few projects consumed and frustrated Michelangelo as much as his work on the Medici family’s Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Of its four components, only the chapel was completed. While most of the library was finished, the innovative design for the Pope’s private library was never carried out. The facade, whose marble Michelangelo spent years selecting, was likewise never begun. The church’s completion would have stamped Michelangelo’s avant-garde ideas on his hometown.

These three designs show Michelangelo experimenting, in search of a completely new, “perfect” solution based on pure geometric shapes like circles and squares.

Eustache de Saint-Pierre

Auguste Rodin, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Conceived 1887; cast 1987 Bronze Height: 214.5 cm Art Gallery of Ontario Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1992

Trouble with Patrons: The Burghers of Calais

A Big Commission

In 1884 the town council of Calais, France, commissioned Auguste Rodin to create a monument to celebrate a proud moment in its distant past. In 1347 King Edward III of England ordered his army to attack Calais. After a year of misery he offered to lift the siege if six of the town’s burghers (local leaders) surrendered themselves for execution. Ultimately the English queen intervened to save their lives.

Rodin’s Struggles

Over a five-year period Rodin remodelled the six burghers over and over again. He made numerous studies, including ones of their heads and hands. But the town councilors of Calais rejected the sculptor’s final model. They felt the burghers looked like criminals rather than martyrs. Instead of sorrow and despair, the council wanted the monument to inspire patriotism. “We insist,” they wrote, “that Rodin modify the figures.” The artist responded, “Conventional art I despise,” and refused to alter the work. After years of conflict, The Burghers of Calais was finally unveiled in 1895, but with an elevated base and not at ground level as in Rodin’s radical design. Today The Burghers is celebrated as one of the most original sculptures of the 1800s.

The Bronze Castings

The finished monument exists in eight casts, in locations including Paris, Toyko, London and Washington, DC. Casts of the individual burghers have also been made, as you see here.

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Background image: Michelangelo, Study for the Porta Pia in Rome, c.1561. Black chalk, pen and ink with brown wash, white heightening. 47.0 x 28.0 cm Casa Buonarroti