What Makes Rodin’s The Thinker a Great Sculpture: An Introduction to Rodin Life, Craft & Iconic Work

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker exists in about 28 full-size bronze casts, each approx­i­mate­ly 73 inch­es high, in muse­ums around the world, as well as sev­er­al dozen cast­ings of small­er size and plas­ter mod­els and stud­ies. The Thinker also exists as one of the most copied and par­o­died art­works in world his­to­ry, per­haps because of its ubiq­ui­ty. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly,” Joseph Phe­lan writes at the Art­cy­clo­pe­dia, “there is a side of Rodin’s work that has become kitsch through cheap repro­duc­tions and com­mer­cial rip-offs.”

In pop­u­lar inter­pre­ta­tions, The Thinker rep­re­sents philo­soph­i­cal abstrac­tion. But Rodin’s fig­ure doesn’t con­tem­plate Plato’s forms or Kant’s cat­e­gories. He dreams of hell, and brings a vision of eter­nal tor­ment into being. He is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the poet Dante (hence his orig­i­nal name, The Poet) in Rodin’s most ambi­tious mas­ter­work, The Gates of Hell, made on com­mis­sion from the Muse­um of Dec­o­ra­tive Arts in Paris. The sub­ject, “bas-reliefs rep­re­sent­ing The Divine Com­e­dy,” was “sure­ly sug­gest­ed by Rodin him­self, as he was an avid read­er of Dante,” the Asso­ci­a­tion for Pub­lic Art points out.

Divorced from its orig­i­nal con­text — a work begun in 1880 and only com­plet­ed after the artist’s death in 1917 — The Thinker becomes “a uni­ver­sal image,” the Nation­al Gallery of Art writes — one that “reveals in phys­i­cal terms the men­tal effort and even phys­i­cal anguish of cre­ativ­i­ty.” As Rodin him­self put it, “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.” If we can see his thought­ful pos­ture with fresh eyes, we’ll notice his extreme stress, ten­sion, and pain.

Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for the final 37 years of his life, and didn’t live to see it cast in full dur­ing his life­time. The mas­sive bronze doors — which also pro­duced such famous Rodin sculp­tures as The Three Shades and The Kiss — con­tain around 200 indi­vid­ual fig­ures and groups of suf­fer­ers from the Infer­no. “For Rodin,” notes the Rodin Muse­um, “the chaot­ic pop­u­la­tion on The Gates of Hell enjoyed only one final free­dom — the abil­i­ty to express their agony with com­plete aban­don … The fig­ures on the doors poignant­ly and heart-rend­ing evoke uni­ver­sal human emo­tions and expe­ri­ences.”

While hell’s denizens writhe and burn below him, The Thinker, perched atop the door, curls in on him­self with the strain of imag­i­na­tion. What­ev­er his orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion, he came unglued from the Infer­no, his mod­u­lar nature part of the sculptor’s orig­i­nal design. The Thinker is Dante, but also “in a very real sense,” the Met writes, “The Thinker is Rodin. Brutish­ly mus­cled yet engrossed in thought, coiled in ten­sion yet loose in repose.” As a uni­ver­sal sym­bol for con­tem­pla­tion, he is also an image of bring­ing art into being through the sheer force of one’s mind.

Rodin, after all, “nev­er pro­duced a work of plas­ter, bronze, or even mar­ble with his own hands,” says the Great Art Explained video above, pre­fer­ring “an indus­tri­al approach to pro­duc­ing art” that meant a  super­vi­so­ry role over crews of work­ers, rais­ing ques­tions about “authen­tic­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty.” Per­haps Rodin “shows us that an artist should be judged by what’s in his head, not in his hands,” but The Thinker shows us that what’s in the head is also in the hands, the gnarled back, tense sinewy arms, and curled up toes.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Rare Film of Sculp­tor Auguste Rodin Work­ing at His Stu­dio in Paris (1915)

A Free Online Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Watch 1915 Video of Mon­et, Renoir, Rodin & Degas: The New Motion Pic­ture Cam­era Cap­tures the Inno­v­a­tive Artists

The Sto­ry Behind Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Edward Williams says:

    I don’t agree that an art­work should be judged by what is in the artists head. An artist should be able to do most of the work them­selves, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly the actu­al cast­ing of bronze. They should at least do the mod­el­ing and molds them­selves. We would not accept that a pot­ter designed some pot­tery and had some­one else make it.

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