Rodin's The Thinker
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Rodin's The Thinker

All told there are, twenty-five 72" enlarged versions of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker. Of these, fewer than ten were cast and patinated during his lifetime. One of the last Rodin supervised casts can be found in Cleveland, Ohio, where it sits directly in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. This cast was acquired in 1916, and given to the Cleveland Museum of Art early in 1917.

 

About The Thinker

One of Auguste Rodin's most famous works, The Thinker was part of a commission for the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Although the museum was never built, the commission for the doors was begun, though never completed. The Gates of Hell is considered one of Rodin's masterworks.

Rodin worked for approximately ten years on the conception, construction, and arrangement of the Gates of Hell. Each of the main figures included was originally designed to represent one of the main characters in hell in Dante's epic poem of 1321, The Divine Comedy. The Thinker, initially intended to represent Dante himself, was originally positioned by Rodin at the top of the doorjamb, contemplating the scene below.

In the nearly ten years that Rodin worked on the Gates of Hell, he changed the format of the images several times. Often he would re-work one or more of the main sculptural groups, or remove them from the door's composition altogether. The Thinker, although not frequently included in these re-workings, was removed from the doors once, along with all of the other protruding sculptural elements, when the doors were displayed in 1900.

Several of the sculptures designed for the Gates of Hell - especially The Thinker and The Kiss - became well known as sculptures independent of the original project. The Thinker was originally entitled Le Poète (The Poet) by Rodin. He changed the title to Le Poète/Le Pensure (The Poet/ The Thinker), and then finally to Le Pensure (The Thinker).

The enlargement of the original 27" version of the sculpture was not difficult thanks to the help of an enlarging mechanism called the colas machine and the assistance of Henri Lebosse. Using the process that Lebosse developed, Rodin's original model could be "traced" onto another block of clay, and in the process, enlarged or reduced.

 

Tradition of Outdoor, Public Placement

Although created for the Gates of Hell, The Thinker took on an alternate significance and became a symbol of freedom and knowledge.

After its first exhibition, a public petition was circulated to have the 72" sculpture purchased and donated to the people of France. After its purchase in 1906, the initial enlarged version of Rodin's The Thinker was placed outside of the Pantheon in Paris, where it stayed until 1922. It was later removed from its original placement because it was said to create an obstacle to public events, and, also because it had taken on socialist connotations. It was subsequently transported to the Musee Rodin, in the former Hotel Biron.

There the statue sits today on its original pedestal in the exterior gardens of the Museum. There is also another version of The Thinker located over the grave of Auguste and Rose Rodin. Auguste Rodin placed it there upon the death of his wife, and when he passed away in 1917, he was also buried below it. Because the original Gates of Hell were designed as outdoor sculpture, and Rodin's first enlargement was placed outdoors in front of the Pantheon, most of Rodin's subsequent enlargements have ended up outdoors as well. Unfortunately this leaves these works unprotected from both the elements and the public.

Location of the Original Reproductions

All told there are twenty-five castings of the enlarged version of Rodin's The Thinker. Of these, less than ten were cast and patinated during his lifetime.

Two of these early examples can currently be found in Paris, one in the Hotel Biron, which is currently the Musée Rodin, and one that is directly over the Rodin gravesite.

One of the last Rodin-supervised casts can be found in Cleveland, Ohio, where it sits directly in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. This cast was acquired in 1917, just after the Museum opened to the public.

The twenty remaining castings of The Thinker were done posthumously. At least seven or eight of these were from the original series of enlargements that Rodin had begun before his death. The remainder were part of a recast edition sanctioned by Auguste Rodin and undertaken by the Musee Rodin in 1960. Rather curiously, there seems to be at least one unauthorized casting of this figure that is currently housed in Germany at the Kunsthalle Richard Kaselowsky-Haus, Bielifield.

WHERE TO FIND THE THINKER IN NORTH AMERICA

  • Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
  • Columbia Savings and Loan, Denver, Colorado
  • Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
  • Allen R. Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky
  • Columbia University, New York, New York
  • The Gerald B. Cantor Sculpture Center, New York, New York
  • The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
  • The Rodin Museum of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California
  • Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
  • William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

 

WHERE TO FIND THE THINKER AROUND THE WORLD

  • Plaza del Congresso, Buenos Aries, Argentina
  • Kunsthalle Richard Kaselowsky-Haus, Bielifield, Germany
  • National Gallery, Berlin, German
  • Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Denmark
  • Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, Japan
  • Laeken, Belgium Cemetery
  • Musée Rodin, Meudon, France
  • State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia
  • Municipal Museum, Nagoya , Japan
  • Musée Rodin, Paris France
  • Prins Eugens Waldermarsudde, Stockholm, Sweden
  • National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan

The Thinker Vandalized

At approximately 1:00 am on March 24, 1970, a bomb irreparably damaged the Cleveland Museum's version of Rodin's The Thinker. The bomb itself had been placed on a pedestal that supported the enlargement and had the power of about three sticks of dynamite.

No one was injured in the subsequent blast, but the statue's base and lower legs were destroyed. The remaining sections of the cast were blown backward to form a 'plume' at the base, and the entire statue was knocked to the ground. It was reported that this attack was undertaken by a radical political group, perhaps as a commentary on the continuing military action in Vietnam or the elitism of the American government.

Regardless, no one was ever arrested or charged with the destruction. However, the incident highlighted several conservation issues related directly to artistic intent. Since the piece was so dramatically damaged, the Museum was unsure how to proceed. One idea was to create an entirely new cast to replace the damaged work. Another idea was to restore the sculpture by recasting elements of Rodin's original. Finally, however, it was decided that the statue should not be repaired, but placed outside the Museum in its damaged condition.

 

Conservation Issues

The museum's large cast of The Thinker has a unique history that highlights some of the ethical and practical issues inherent in the field of conservation. Cast under Rodin's direct supervision, the large version of The Thinker was purchasesd from the artist by Clevelander Ralph T. King who donated it to the museum in 1917. First displayed in the museum's rotunda, it was soon moved outside, to the museum's south entrance. Once the sculpture was outdoors, its surface began to corrode almost immediately, changing the color and appearance of the metal. Over the years, hand-rubbing, wax, and commercial oil preparations were used to protect it. Then, in 1970, the sculpture was severely damaged by a dynamite explosion. According to the Cleveland Police Department, this act of vandalism was committed by a cell of the politically radical Weather Underground that was operating in Cleveland at the time.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the museum considered three options: 1) obtain and display a replacement cast; 2) repair the sculpture by welding on newly-cast sections to replace the areas that were damaged; 3) mount and display the damaged sculpture. All three options were problematic in some way. With the first, a new cast of the complete sculpture would be removed historically from the original, which was so closely connected with the artist. A recast would in essence be a reproduction. With the second, distortions caused by the dynamite blast would have made it difficult to align the replacement sections with those original sculpture. The third option was chosen largely because it preserved what was left of Rodin's original work and because the damaged sculpture would bear vivid witness to a period of political unrest in the United States during the Vietnam War. Like the museum's other outdoor sculptures, The Thinker now receives routine maintenance twice a year. It is washed and rewaxed each spring and fall.

An interesting comparison can be made with the musem's small version of The Thinker. Also cast in the late 19th century under Rodin's direct supervision, this work has remained indoors, in the controlled environment of the museum, and is in excllent condition. The original surface and artistic intention have been preserved.

Related Sculptures at the Museum

Aside from the Cleveland Museum of Art's large cast of The Thinker, there are several other sculptures in the museum's collection that directly relate to Rodin's plans for the Gates of Hell. The museum owns two smaller versions of The Thinker, 27 inches and 14 inches respectively. There is also the Embracing Couple, which like much of the door's imagery, was inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The museum also has several sculptures that may have been studies for the tangled mass of figures that surround the door including Les Dammes and the Fallen Angels.

Rodin as a 19th-Century Sculptor

The mid-19th century sculptor August Rodin was greatly influenced by the expressive and innovative sculpture of the Early and High Renaissance and Mannerism. The work of Michaelangelo (1475-1564), Dontato Bramante (1444-1514), and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) were his inspirations, and he sought to create dramatic, refined sculptures patterned after their works.

Commissioned sculptural groups like the Burghers of Calais and the Gates of Hell clearly show Rodin's debt to the Renaissance and his commitment to the expressive qualities of his medium. Rodin clearly influence visual artist who came after him with his expressive style and tactile handling of the clay and wax used to create his initial models.

Rodin was not alone in his experimental handling of the sculptural form. Edgar Degas (1834-1917), in particular, was clearly interested in new and expressive ways to model human and animal motion. There were also a number of decorative artists who called on Rodin's skills as a sculptor for both assistance and inspiration in their own works.

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