Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Rodin’s Large Left Hand 1903

Seth Judson
Santa Barbara, California, United States


Auguste Rodin's Large Left Hand
Large Left Hand 1903
Auguste Rodin
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University
Photography by Seth Judson

Walking down Madison Avenue in 1947, B. Gerald Cantor saw in a window a bronze sculpture of Rodin’s The Hand of God. This would be his first Rodin purchase, igniting the curiosity and passion that would eventually cause Cantor to endow Stanford University with the second largest Rodin collection in the world.1 Totaling over 200 works, Stanford’s Rodin collection has accumulated many different forms of human expression, yet none are more striking than Rodin’s hands.

Admired for their revolutionary style, Rodin’s sculptures combine art with science. One of the reasons why Rodin became the most famous sculptor in modernity is because his sculptures are so life-like. In fact his attention to detail was so great that he was initially accused of surmoulage, making casts from live people. Among the details Rodin captured are the deformities of his subjects. Many members of the medical community, particularly hand surgeons, are Rodin enthusiasts because they see in Rodin’s subjects real clinical problems. Whether his subjects truly had deformities, or whether Rodin took some artistic license, we will never know. However, many of the hands at Cantor Arts Center appear to have actual clinical conditions that can be diagnosed. Moreover, one can tell a great deal about the original subjects of Rodin’s sculptures by understanding their anatomy and history. Among Stanford’s collection, Rodin’s Large Left Hand 1903 has several deformities and possible clinical correlations. Often a differential diagnosis can be made, ranking the likelihood of possible clinical conditions.

Looking at the palmar side of the hand, one notices large lumps and depressions in the skin. There also seems to be a relationship between these pits and cords pulling the fingers down into a bent position, particularly the ring and small fingers. The most likely cause of these deformities is Dupuytren’s contracture. Named after surgeon Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, this disease is caused by a shrinking of the fascia of the palm. Dupuytren’s contraction is inherited and associated with certain populations, allowing for a possible forensic analysis of the subject. Sometimes called “Viking disease,” it primarily affects men in their forties of Scandinavian or Northern European descent. Because the fascia becomes thick and contracts, the fingers are pulled inwards. The ring and small fingers tend to be most affected, causing limited motion and difficulty in grabbing objects.

The next most plausible explanation for the deformities seen in the fingers of Large Left Hand 1903 is rotational deformity or scissoring. The middle and ring fingers of Large Left Hand 1903 are overlapping. This is possibly due to a fracture of the third metacarpal bone causing the middle finger to cross over on top of the ring finger. The type of fracture is probably a spiral fracture, where part of the bone has been twisted and rotated so that it is no longer correctly aligned. In this hand the middle finger is pointing away from the other fingers, towards the ulnar side of the hand. It is important to identify rotational deformities in the fingers because if the bone heals in its rotated form, then function is compromised. In addition, scissoring of the fingers causes discomfort and is cosmetically unappealing.

The thumb of the hand also seems to have a deformity, with the distal phalanx (tip of the thumb) appearing to be hyperextended. A possible explanation for this is Boutonniere deformity. Although commonly associated with rheumatoid arthritis, Boutonniere deformity can also occur during a sprain of the proximal interphalangeal joint. Large Left Hand 1903 lacks the usual characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis; there is no overall ulnar deviation of the metacarpophalangeal joints and no swan-neck deformities of the fingers. Therefore, the Boutonniere deformity probably occurred through a sprain, which caused the slips of the extensor tendons on the back of the thumb to separate and the head of the proximal phalanx to poke through the gap.2 This gap is where the deformity gets its name, boutonniere being French for buttonhole. Since the proximal phalanx is poking through the gap, the tip of the thumb becomes hyperextended.

Looking more closely at the hand, one also notices a curvature of the small finger. The distal phalanx seems to be bent inward towards the radial side of the hand. A possible cause for this is clinodactyly, derived from the Greek kliner “to bend” and dactylos “finger.” Clinodactyly can be caused by a phalanx that is triangular or by a bracket epiphysis, which occurs when a physeal plate extends along one side of the middle phalanx.3 In many cases this is only an esthetic problem that doesn’t compromise function. However, when considering whether the subject of Large Left Hand 1903 had clinodactyly, it’s interesting to note the significance of the small finger in art history. Dating back to 15th century Dutch artists, the small finger has been associated with knowledge and power. In fact, the subjects of many Renaissance paintings have purposely exaggerated small fingers.3 Was Rodin following suit when he elongated and bent this small finger?

Out of all of these diagnoses, Dupuytren’s contracture seems most plausible not only from an anatomical understanding but also from a historical perspective. Inspired by the work of Renaissance artists who closely studied anatomy, Rodin was part of the scientific naturalism movement in France. He wanted his figures to seem alive, so he took medical classes to further understand the anatomy of his subjects. In addition he studied corpses at the Musée Dupuytren.4 Named after the same French surgeon as Dupuytren’s contracture, the Musée Dupuytren specializes in malformations and deformities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the museum would have specimens with the famous deformity of its namesake. It is quite possible that the inspiration for Large Left Hand 1903 came from Rodin’s studies of hands at the Musée Dupuytren.

From the mudras or spiritual gestures of the Buddha to the raised fist, a symbol of solidarity and resistance, the hand has been a popular subject throughout history. However, Rodin revolutionized the way we see the hand by combining artistic expression with scientific accuracy. Understanding the anatomical and clinical correlations behind Rodin’s subjects gives one an even greater appreciation for his art. The deformities present in Large Left Hand 1903 reflect not only his accuracy and attention to detail, but also the level of humanity in his work. Whether it is Dupuytren’s contracture, scissoring, Boutonnier thumb, or clinodactyly, the deformity makes the hand human. Such imperfections bring the subject to life, allowing one to identify with the hand. Perhaps this is what B. Gerald Cantor saw in the window on Madison Avenue. Although the sculpture is titled The Hand of God, many believe that Rodin used the same hand for his human figures in the Burghers of Calais, with all of the imperfections. Having just started his own business,1 Cantor saw in the window a hand that was also creating. But it was not the flawless hand of a divine creator. The hand was human.



  1. Elsen, Albert Edward. Rodin’s Art: The Rodin Collection of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  2. Kontor, J. A. “Extensor tendon injuries and repairs in the hand.” Canadian Family Physician 28 (1982): 1159.
  3. Flatt, Adrian E. “The troubles with pinkies.” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center) 18, no. 4 (2005): 341.
  4. Larson, Barbara. “Mapping the Body and the Brain: Neurology and Localization Theory in the Work of Rodin.” RACAR: revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review (2009): 30-40.



SETH JUDSON, BS, aspires to combine his passions for the visual arts and natural sciences in a career in medicine. He will be a medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA this fall and would like to thank hand surgeon Dr. James Chang and the Cantor Arts Center for inspiring his interest in the anatomy of Rodin’s hands while he was an undergraduate at Stanford University.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2017 – Volume 8, Issue 4
Spring 2015  |  Sections  |  Art Essays

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