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Thinker

Auguste Rodin, 1880-82
Collection: 
Musée Rodin, Paris

 

Rodin produced an over life-size plaster version for a1904 exhibition in Dresden (Grossen Kunstaustellung). It was later purchased by the city museum (Staatliche Kunstsammlung), where it can still be seen.


Rodin described The Thinker :

“ 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 fists, and gripping toes.”

Cited in “Auguste Rodin, Famous French Sculptor, Dead,” Fine Arts Journal, vol. 35, no. 12 (December 1917): 32.


An anonymous contemporary critic considered The Thinker evidence of Rodin’s mediocrity when he saw it at the 1904 Salon:

“M. Rodin lacks the two faculties that constitute great artists: he does not see plastic beauty; he does not understand the decorum that must exist between form and ideas….The Thinker offers all the physiognomic and physical traits that are antithetical to the idea of thought. It is the body of a stevedore, in a pose of lassitude, of physical constriction; the head is without a brain, the muscles are those of a primitive man. All the forms awaken ideas contrary to those of thought; ideas of material work, of brutality, of sorrow. The pose…seen in a certain light, [can] express meditation, [but] is contradicted by the importance of the body, and in sculpture it is an error to find expression by luminous artifices. Here, as elsewhere, M. Rodin, incapable of that sobriety which is the sign of power, makes a caricature….A work of art is beautiful when the forms are harmonious and correspond to the proposed theme.”

Anonymous, “Le Penseur de M. Rodin," Le Chroniquer de Paris (8 December 1904), translated and excerpted in Albert Elsen, Rodin’s Thinker and the Dilemmas of Modern Public Sculpture (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 133-4.


Albert Elsen notes The Thinker’s openness to a variety of interpretations:

“Testifying to the fluidity of interpretation the statue invited, even those who had access to Rodin could not agree on who The Thinker was and what he was doing. Before 1903 he was a ‘superhuman’ or ‘thoughtful Dante’ capable of ‘deep understanding’ of the human soul or he was ‘an awful Thinker’ like ‘a bird or prey…contented in the vengeance he has meted out to the vile of the earth.’ He was ‘frightened himself by his work’ and a suffering ‘martyr to his own vision.’ He was not just a ‘poet,’ but an ‘eternal poet,’ an ‘observer,’ a ‘perpetual dreamer’ about the past and the future. Depending upon whom one read, he had an ‘inspired gaze,’ a ‘rapt and sinister countenance,’ ‘looked down on hell,’ or with ‘eyes fixed on the infinite’ he was ‘serene in his release from sorrow,’ He was seen to be ‘crouching’ or sitting on a ‘broken column,’ ‘head in hands,’ pressing his ‘fists against his teeth,’ or ‘his brain to the limit,’ He participated in the ‘noisy life around him,’ and he was ‘absorbed and silent.’ The Thinker was ‘heavy with thought’ and ‘the personification of thought,’ He was seen to be ‘reflecting on man and things human,’ while another writer read his ‘visionary’ look as an indication that he was a morally ‘strong man’ who was a ‘witness to suffering.’ Many agreed that he realized the subject of the great sculpture portal in his thought, and one perceptively recognized his centrality to the ‘decorative unity’ of the great composition [the Gates of Hell].”

Albert Elsen, Rodin’s Thinker and the Dilemmas of Modern Public Sculpture (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 64-5.

 

Barbara Larson situates Rodin's Thinker in a psychological context. Noting the influence of Dürer's Melencholia, she continues: 
 
"Rodin may have taken direction from another source as well. In Florence he had visited the Medici chapel, wherein Michelangelo had produced a sculpture of Lorenzo de'Medici: hand to chin, his face in shadow, he too is in the traditional pose of the melancholic. Rodin identified Michelangelo himself as a melancholic: 'Michelangelo is only the last and greatest of the gothics, the turning of the soul upon itself, suffering, a disgust with life, struggle agains the chains of matter…[He] himself was tortured by melancholy.' By the 1880s, whenThe Thinker came to fruition, the mind that thinks was regarded as the subjective side of the brain that deploys its various controlling components, pathological and otherwise, over the body. Rodin's Thinker contracts: right elbow crosses to left knee; legs are drawn under the body; toes tightly grip the base; tendons, nerves, and muscles strain against the skin….
In an early study, The Thinker had elongated arms and a more rounded physique, approximating an ape-man. Claude Roger-Marx, early critic and friend of Rodin, identified the independent sculpture of The Thinker as prehistoric man. In 1895 he wrote, 'Rodin wished to create the original thinker, the thinker who enabled man to rise above the animal, the first animal inspired by the spark of divine wisdom, who struggles with convulsive pain to give birth to the first thought. It is this prehistoric man, the first, the greatest of all men, whom Rodin wished to immortalize in his statue.' Rodin's Thinker is posed somewhere between instinct and thought."

Barbara Larson, "Mapping the Body and the Brain: Neurology and Localization Theory in the Work of Rodin," Canadian Art Review, vol. XXXIV, no. 1 (2009): 37-9. 


 
John B. Rici notes that Rodin gave a bronze cast of The Thinker to the newly-opened Cleveland Museum of Art in 1917:
 
“In 1917 the Celeveland Museum acquired one of the original casts of The Thinker made by Rodin himself. Generous attention was lavished on the work, especially since the museum was only a year old when the cast was donated. At first it was displayed inside the rotunda, but the dull lighting caused the curators to rethink its placement, and shortly thereafter it was reinstalled on a pedestal near the south entrance. 
Lively arguments took place about the preservation of the sculpture, now placed outdoors and subject to the intense lake-effect winters Cleveland is famous for. A few burnishings were administered from time to time to ensure some protection, but no effective measures were advanced to permanently care for the sculpture…
On the morning of March 24, 1970, three large sticks of dynamite were placed between the legs of the Cleveland Thinker, the resulting explosion was heard two miles away. The sculpture was thrown from its pedestal; pieces of the legs were found as far away as the roof of the museum….People were horrified….No arrests were ever made, and the members of the group [The Weather Underground] who participated in the sabotage later relocated to New York City where they blew themselves up preparing bombs for another attack….
Cleveland was left with its Thinker in pieces. The museum studied treatment options, none of which fully satisfied anyone….
Ultimately, the Cleveland Museum stabilized the sculpture and reelected it on its pedestal, but never fully restored it. Legless, it now stands as mute testimony to the arrogance of radicals, who believe that statements can be made by attacking inanimate, defenseless objects.” pp 169-71

 
John B. Nici, Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 169-71.

 

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 12 November 1840
Died: Meudon, 18 November 1917
Nationality: French