The Fertile Thought: Auguste Rodin and 'The Thinker'

One hundred and 75 years ago today, French sculptor Auguste Rodin was born. We take a look at the story behind his most iconic sculpture of all-time.
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In every era of art, there are a few pieces of work that reach beyond the province of art collectors and museum habitués and capture the general public’s imagination. Works like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night transcend time and place and become cultural touchstones, so intrinsic to our notions of art that over time they become ripe for parody and widespread commercialization (Van Gogh tote bag, anyone?). The number of art works that have this kind of impact are relatively few, but one of the most well known and well regarded of them all is a sculpture by a Frenchman named Auguste Rodin, who in the late 19th century created an iconic figure that he called Le Penseur. In English we know it as The Thinker, and most of us can summon an image of it to mind without even seeing a picture of it.

Unlike most sculptures instantly recognized by the general public, The Thinker is not a large nationalistic statue like the Statue of Liberty in New York or the Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over Rio de Janeiro. Created on a modest scale, and based on an introspective theme rather than a celebratory or commemorative one, The Thinker communicates an idea that everyone can identify with – the need for silent contemplation – but presents it in a powerful way that makes an unseen, internal process seem almost physically tangible. Its robust portrayal of the simple act of pondering has made it as recognizable as any of those grander public works, and it stands (or more accurately, sits) as a worthy fellow to the masterpieces by Da Vinci, Munch, and Van Gogh mentioned above.

How did this world-famous sculpture come to be? Today Bio looks at the story behind the creation of The Thinker, a piece whose simplicity of presentation, strength of composition, and air of mystery continue to speak to people over a hundred years after its creation.

Making His Name

Auguste Rodin Young Photo

Auguste Rodin, Paris 1862. (Photo: Charles Hippolyte Aubry (Musée Rodin) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Given the amount of renown he would eventually achieve, François Auguste René Rodin’s early days as an artist were chequered and difficult. Refused entry to France’s most prominent art school, the École des Beaux-Arts, on three separate occasions, Rodin exercised his artistic talents by doing decorative work for houses and public buildings. Unsatisfied artistically by this work-for-hire, he first saw his way through to creating more personal statements as an assistant to the sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, while also taking classes in sculpture at the same time.

A trip to Italy in the mid-1870s (when he was already in his 30s) made firm Rodin’s resolve to strive to be a sculptor when he viewed the works of Michelangelo at close range for the first time. His first serious work, The Age of Bronze (The Vanquished), was completed shortly thereafter. A bronze so life-like that critics accused Rodin of simply casting a live model, the work showed the first evidence of a mature style: realistic, elemental, and slightly ambiguous in its intent.

While working for Carrier-Belleuse at the Sèvres porcelain factory in Belgium in the late 1870s, Rodin was introduced to several key French government officials who knew of his reputation for excellent decorative work. Previously unsuccessful in securing government commissions at home, Rodin began to receive and accept commissions for monuments and other public sculptures. The most important of these was awarded to him in 1880: a commission for a large portal for a proposed decorative arts museum in Paris. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs would never actually be built (the Musée d’Orsay stands there now), but the commission would prompt an outpouring of work from Rodin that would not only lead directly to The Thinker, but that would determine the course of his entire career.

The Gates of Hell

Gates of Hell Rodin Photo

'The Gates of Hell.' (Photo: Roland zh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Rodin based his idea for his new portal on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which in the late 19th Century had experienced a revival in popularity. Rodin was interested in adapting figures from the first book of The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, to fashion a counterpoint to the famous bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti that Michelangelo referred to as The Gates of Paradise. Rodin called his creation The Gates of Hell. Rodin’s plan consisted of placing a central figure representing Dante at the top of the 20-foot high portal. This figure would preside over incidents from the book illustrated around the portal’s frame. For this reason, the sculpture that would eventually become The Thinker was initially called Le Poète (The Poet) in reference to Dante.

Gates of Hell The Thinker Photo

A close-up of 'The Thinker' in 'The Gates of Hell.' (Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Rodin approached his project with great gusto, and early versions of the many sculptures designed to be part of The Gates of Hell impressed both critics and collectors. It wasn’t long before individual pieces were being broken out from the whole at the request of interested buyers. Le Poète was one of the first. In 1884, for a collector based in England, Rodin crafted an early version of the statue wearing a Florentine-style cap, a nod to the initial conception of the figure as Dante. Rodin had already decided, however, that turning his poet into a specific man was not the direction he wished to pursue. Instead, he chose to remove all clothing, including headgear, from the piece as he continued to work with it and cast new figures. “Gaunt, ascetic in his straight robe, my Dante, separated from the ensemble, would have no meaning,” he stated. Accordingly, Le Poète became Le Penseur: “I conceived of another thinker, a naked man crouched on a rock against which his feet are clenched. Fist pressed against his teeth, he thinks. The fertile thought develops slowly in his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, but a creator.”

Emerging Fully Formed

Auguste Rodin Photo

Rodin in his studio. (Photo: Paul François Arnold Cardon (a) Dornac (1858-1941) (here) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Rodin’s early versions of the statue were never exhibited. It wasn’t until 1888 in Copenhagen that he finally decided to let the work be seen in the form that best represented the universal idea he now envisioned. The final 28-inch high plaster statue revealed an anonymous man in deep thought, an everyman whose powerful physicality served to express an all-encompassing emotion. “What makes my thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips,” Rodin noted, “but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” The statue no longer communicated the attitude of a poet presiding over a collection of literary fancies; instead, it captured an introspective moment of any human being – a poet, a leader, a scholar, an everyday working man, or even the artist himself.

Upon its exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Georges Petit, The Thinker was so well-received in its small scale form that Rodin resolved to make a more monumental version. Using a process developed in the 1830s for tracing an artist’s movements at a small scale to create a duplicate at a larger scale, he and his chief assistant Henri LeBossé gradually created, by the turn of the century, the six-foot tall bronze-painted plaster statue that has come to be recognized as the most fully realized version of the piece. This intentionally rougher, more imposing version was shown in 1904 at the Spring Salon in Paris. Inevitably at such a large scale, the sculpture exuded more power and strength than it did in its smaller form, as if the issues weighing on the man were more profound, or as if he were going to rise to confront them once he finished his thinking.

An Explosive Reaction

Reaction to The Thinker was so strong that the notion of it being sold to a private buyer troubled French art critic Gabriel Mourey. He started a successful campaign to purchase the statue for the people of France so that the entire nation would own it. In 1904, the same year that a bronze version was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair, The Thinker was erected in front of the Panthéon in Paris, the mausoleum that houses the remains of great French citizens and one of the most symbolically important buildings in the city. For the first of several times over the years, however, the statue would provoke an unexpected response. It had only been on view for a month and a half when a mentally disturbed man named Poitron destroyed the statue on January 16, 1905, explaining upon his arrest that he felt that it was mocking him.

Undeterred by this incident of extremist art criticism, Rodin and his staff produced another cast of the statue, this time in bronze, which was installed in front of the Panthéon in 1906. By this time, Rodin’s perception of the piece had evolved. He now viewed it as a tribute to the French people, a public monument with a public function: “It magnifies the thought of those humble people of the soil who are nevertheless producers of powerful energies. It is in itself a social symbol.” The Thinker would stand in front of the Panthéon until 1922, when this very perception of it as a socialist symbol began to grate on more conservative elements of France and caused it to be removed. (This version of the statue was moved to the Musée Rodin, a museum created out of Rodin’s workshop shortly after his death.)

A Proliferation of Thinkers

The Kiss Rodin Photo

Rodin's 'The Kiss' at the Musée Rodin in Paris. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Thinker, along with other pieces excerpted from The Gates of Hell like the famous statue of The Kiss, turned Rodin into something of an art star. An earlier, poorly received representation of the poet Balzac was superseded by the widespread approval that The Thinker garnered. The desire for the piece was so great that in his lifetime, Rodin would approve 10 castings of the sculpture in bronze for various institutions. Aside from the version that appeared at the St. Louis World’s Fair, other bronzes were displayed in London, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Venice, and Poznan, Poland. A monumental Thinker arrived in America for keeps when the San Francisco Legion of Honor purchased one of the European copies in 1915.

One of the final Thinker monumentals approved by Rodin during his lifetime was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1916. In an echo of the original’s fate in 1905 Paris, this version of the sculpture was dynamited in 1970, allegedly by members of the radical revolutionary group The Weather Underground (no one was ever arrested in connection with the crime). The lower legs and pedestal of the statue were irreparably damaged, but in an effort to preserve the statue in as authentic a state as possible (and, in effect, reflecting Rodin’s own feelings about how accidents can inform art), the statue was reinstalled in its damaged state and remains there today. It’s a striking version of the sculpture, the rock beneath the man splayed into bent petals while his thoughts remain unperturbed. The statue looks both more modern and more classically fragmented all at once.

A Deathless Icon

Auguste Rodin died in 1917. The popularity of The Thinker in his lifetime was a source of gratification to him, and its importance to him personally was confirmed by the fact that he asked to have a copy placed over his grave and the grave of his wife Rose Beuret at their home in Meudon. His wife died in February of 1917 and Rodin followed her that November at the age of 77. Le Penseur broods over their graves, perhaps thinking now about issues more related to heaven than earth. Interestingly, unlike every other copy of the statue, “RODIN” is emblazoned on the pedestal at Meudon, making explicit the correspondence between the man in the sculpture and its creator. The statue serves as both memorial and commentary.

Times change, and for a period in the 20th century after his death, Rodin’s work fell out of favor; The Thinker, however, never went out of fashion. In the almost 100 years since Rodin’s death, it has been cast almost 20 more times, and now it can be viewed in multiple places around the world. In the United States alone, versions of the piece can be seen in Baltimore (in two places), New York (also in two places), Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Louisville, Pasadena, Kansas City, Houston, and Philadelphia (as part of a museum devoted exclusively to Rodin’s work). The monumental versions usually sit outdoors, as Rodin intended, so that the sculpture becomes part of its environment, exposed to the elements outside but still absorbed within itself.

Of course, the popularity of The Thinker goes beyond mere physical manifestations; over time, it has become a totemic image in pop culture. It has been lampooned in cartoons (the Peanuts comic strip referred to it memorably), parodied on-stage and in movies and TV, and even co-opted by an insurance company to lend an air of gravitas to the shilling of policies. While most of these references poke fun at the serious nature of the piece, none of them challenge the essential spirit of the work, which seems impervious to satire. The work is iconic because it is powerful, and none of its power has subsided since its creation. It retains an air of mystery that no pop culture send-up can penetrate. Even now, we still look at Rodin’s masterpiece and wonder what The Thinker is thinking.