Le Baiser presents two famous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, locked in their beautiful and tragic final embrace. Around 1275, Francesca, the daughter of Guido da Polenta, married Gianciotto Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, who entrusted her in the care of his brother, the handsome young Paolo. Paolo and Francesca fell in love with each other while reading romances of courtly love. As soon as they exchanged their first kiss, Gianciotto caught the lovers by surprise and stabbed them. This forbidden love and its consequent eternal damnation, was a favorite theme among 19th century artists, from Ingres to Delacroix, and from Ary Scheffer to Cabanel and Henri Martin.
In this sculpture, Rodin portrays the famous lovers at the very instant of their first and final embrace. This duo was originally intended to be incorporated in Rodin’s monumental sculpture, The Gates of Hell, wherein Paolo and Francesca were to represent the carnal sinners’ place in the second circle of Hell (as recorded in Dante’s epic “Divine Comedy”). Most probably because of the tenderness and beauty of this scene, in contrast to the gloomy and violent nature of the Gates other figures, Rodin removed Le Baiser from the larger work and eventually completed it as an independent and lifesize marble sculpture. The marble version was first shown at the Salon de la Sociéte Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1898 where Le Baiser was showered with praise. To this day the piece is regarded as one of Rodin’s finest and arguably most endearing and recognizable sculptures.
Under Rodin’s direction and authority, the Barbedienne foundry later cast the featured bronze version of Le Baiser. Despite its smaller size, it loses none of the allure of its larger counterpart. The glowing patina, sinuous lines, and dramatic embrace exquisitely demonstrate Rodin’s technical and aesthetic ability.
Rodin’s sculpture can be found in over 200 museums worldwide, including major holdings in the Louvre (Paris), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Musee Rodin (Paris), Musee d’Orsay (Paris), Rodin Museum (Philadelphia), National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) and Hermitage (St. Petersburg), amongst other renowned collections. He is the only sculptor of the modern age regarded in his lifetime and afterwards to be on a par with Michelangelo.