Rodin's 1906 Drawings of Cambodian Dancers

Cambodian Dancer Sketch

Rodin drawing a Cambodian dancer in Marseille, 1906
Photo Source: Ernest-Gerhard Güse (Editor),
Auguste Rodin: Drawings and Watercolors
Rizzoli, New York, 1985, page 270
(Original B&W photo color-tinted in Adobe Photoshop)

The summer of 1906 brought a fresh revelation: the royal dancers of King Sisowath of Cambodia, ruler of a still-mysterious French protectorate in Cochin-China. The forty-odd dancers and twelve musicians of the Cambodian court ballet were one of the principal attractions of the Colonial Exhibition then being held at Marseille. They caused a great stir among the cognoscenti but disappointed those who expected an exotic display of kootchie dancers and devadassis. For one thing the dancers were not conventionally pretty. As one surprised observer noted, “with their hard and close-cropped hair, their figures like those of striplings, their thin, muscular legs like those of young boys, their arms and hands like those of little girls, they seem to belong to no definite sex. They have something of the child about them, something of the young warrior of antiquity and something of the woman. Their usual dress, which is half feminine and half masculine, consisting of the famous sampot worn in creases between their knees and their hips and of a silk shawl confining their shoulders, crossed over the bust and knotted at the loins, tends to heighten this curious impression. But, in the absence of beauty, they possess grace, a supple, captivating, royal grace, which is present in their every attitude and gesture.”

When King Sisowath arrived in Paris at the end of June, the court dancers first appeared at a garden party given at the Elysée Palace by the president of the Republic, Armand Fallières, and then— on July 10— at a gala performance held on the open-air stage of the Pré Catalan, in the Bois de Boulogne. Rodin was among the invited guests that evening. P. B. Gheusi of le Figaro saw “the great Rodin, ecstatic beside Valentine de Saint-Point, the vestal-elect of his new fervor, go into ecstasies over the little virgins of Phnom Penh, whose immaterial silhouettes he drew with infinite love...” During the next few days he spent hours drawing the dancers in the gardens of the villa in the rue Malakoff where the Cambodians were staying; he also used the opportunity to do several portrait drawings of the good-natured, eccentric Sisowath himself.

But after a few days the dancers had to return to Marseille to fulfill the rest of their engagement. “To study them more closely I followed them to Marseille,” Rodin told Mario Meunier. “I arrived on a Sunday and went to the Villa des Glycines [to see the dancers]. I wanted to get my impressions on paper, but since all the artists' materials shops were closed I was obliged to go to a grocer and ask him to sell me wrapping paper on which to draw. The paper has since taken on the very beautiful gray tint and pearly quality of antique Japanese silks. I draw them with a pencil in my hand and the paper on my knees, enchanted by the beauty and character of their choric dances. The friezes of Angkor were coming to life before my very eyes... I loved these Cambodian girls so much that I didn't know how to express my gratitude for the royal honor they had shown me in dancing and posing for me. I went to the Nouvelles Galeries to buy a basket of toys for them, and these divine children who dance for the gods hardly knew how to repay me for the happiness I had given them. They even talked about taking me with them.”

Georges Bois, the fine arts delegate of the French colonial administration in Indochina, saw Rodin at work among the dancers: he was “feverishly excited and seemed thirty years younger thanks to this new outburst of enthusiasm.” The drawings were so important to him that, for once, he became the consummate diplomat. The dancers had a short attention span: often a model would stop posing and start pouting. Rodin would go off and buy them little presents to bribe them into going on. “After a little while the model would want to escape again,” Bois reported. “The maître, calm and gentle, and always patient— since he was unwilling to lose any of the short time remaining before the royal party's departure— would again submit to her whims. One day Rodin placed a sheet of white paper on his knee and said to the little Sap: 'Put your foot on this,' and then drew the outline of her foot with a pencil, saying 'Tomorrow you'll have your shoes, but now pose a little more for me!' Sap, having tired of atomizer bottles and cardboard cats, had asked her 'papa' for a pair of pumps. Every evening— ardent, happy but exhausted— Rodin would return to his hotel with his hands full of sketches, and collect his thoughts.”

Thirty-five of the Cambodian drawings were among the 219 Rodin drawings displayed at the Galerie Bernheim in October 1907— an exhibition that gave the outcast Rilke a chance to assure his ex-employer of his undiminished devotion. “During these past weeks I spent nearly all my mornings at Bernheim's in a state of blissful astonishment,” he wrote to Rodin. And again, a week later, on November 11: “Great and dear maître, you have entered far more deeply than you realize into the mystery of the Cambodian dances... For me, these drawings were a revelation of the greatest profundity.”

— Frederic V. Grunfeld, Rodin: A Biography
     Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1987, pp. 518-520

Top of Page | Rodin: Cambodian Dancers | Rodin: The Idea | Rilke: Dance Gesture | 9 Rodin's "Cambodian Dancers" | 7 "Cambodian Dancers"
12 Cities Dance Tour (8/11-9/29/2001) | UC Berkeley Performance (Sept. 8-9, 2001) | Program Notes | "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia" (8 articles)
"Subtle Mysteries of Celestials and Mortals" (NY Times Dance Review, 8-23-2001) | "Sensual dance of Cambodia" (SF Chronicle 9-11-2001)
"A new generation of Cambodian dancers" (SF Chronicle 9-2-2001) | "Dancers work to revive Cambodian traditions" (SJ Mercury News 9-8-2001)
"Drumming Tiger, Singing Hunter Rescued" (LA Times 9-9-2001) | "Dance Review: Carrying on a Lyrical Legacy" (LA Times 9-14-2001)
"In Gentle Motions, A Show of Strength" (Washington Post 10-1-2001) | "Cambodian Dancers Jump Ship in D.C." (Washington Post 10-5-2001)
Washington Kennedy Center (Sept. 28-29, 2001) | Cambodian Dancers: 7 Images (Kennedy Center) | Cambodian Dancers: Video 1 (High Bandwidth)
Poetry in Motion | Cambodia Fine Arts | Cambodian Classical Dance | Dance, Spirit of Cambodia: Resources & Links
Amitav Ghosh's Dancing in Cambodia | Dancing in Cambodia Book Review (1998) | Cambodian Dance and Music in America
Danse Celeste: Cambodian Classical Dance & Music | Apsara Ancient Stone Carvings | Rama & the Ramayana: Lessons in Dharma
Rodin Museum, Paris | Rodin Museum, Philadelphia | Rodin Sculpture Garden, Stanford | Rodin Biography | Rodin on the Internet | Home

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