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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of The Thinker at Musée Rodin in Paris

What is The Thinker?

The Thinker is a world-renowned bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin, originally designed as part of a larger work known as ‘The Gates of Hell’.

Rodin's The Thinker sculpture

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The Thinker History

In the Musée Rodin’s elegant garden stands arguably Rodin’s most widely known sculpture, The Thinker. The now-iconic figure was initially intended to be just one aspect of a much greater work of art, a monumental sculptural gate entitled the Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante’s 14th-century poem the Divine Comedy, and Michelangelo’s 16th-century fresco the Last Judgement, found in the Sistine Chapel. It was to be an enormous task, a six-metre-high sculpture with characters positioned around the entrance to hell. The pensive figure at the top of the doorway, representing Dante himself, was referred to by Rodin as The Poet, and depicted the writer viewing the characters from above. The work, commissioned for the newly conceived Musée des Arts Décoratifs, occupied Rodin for 37 years, and still remained uncast and incomplete in his lifetime.

Many of the sculptures that adorned the Gates of Hell had a life of their own life, including The Kiss and The Three Shades. The Thinker was first exhibited as a solo piece in 1888, but it was far smaller than the statue we know today. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Rodin decided to make The Thinker nearly two-metres tall and recast it in bronze. He exhibited the statue at the Salon des Beaux-Arts, an annual exhibition of French art, and it was an instant success. The Thinker was purchased by the French government and put on display outside the Panthéon as a gift to the people of France, and later, in 1922, it was moved here to the newly opened Musée Rodin.

Rodin was enthusiastic about displaying his art all over the world and so he sanctioned numerous copies of his work in marble and bronze, and also permitted his estate to continue to make castings after his death. There are subsequently many different copies of The Thinker situated in different cities around the world, including versions in Moscow, Tokyo, Philadelphia and Buenos Aires.

Critics have long speculated as to why The Thinker has been so successful and highly regarded, but it’s perhaps Rodin himself who captures the enduring appeal of his masterpiece best. He explained: ‘what makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes’.

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