It’s a familiar sensation for any human: the feeling of being stuck in thought, and failing to possess the faculties to move out of that motionless thought for the time being.
The familiarity of this feeling is what Auguste Rodin believed made his famed sculpture The Thinker a success.
Making Thought Physical
Perhaps Rodin’s most famous art, The Thinker leaves nothing up to question. It’s clear that the sculpted bronze figure, originally crafted in 1880, is deep in thought by his body language and facial expression in addition to the title.
Nude and hunched forward so his arms can rest on his knees, The Thinker places a folded hand under his jaw and furrows his brow. The uncertain position of the body is a stark contrast to the muscular form.
The original version of The Thinker is smaller than the hulking monuments that likely come to mind when you think of the statue. That’s because The Thinker was originally part of a larger work called the Gates of Hell, set to frame the entry of a museum in the late 19th century.
This particular component received so much attention that Rodin decided to capitalize on its success and make it an attraction of its own when it became clear that the museum would actually never open. Since then, many recreations of The Thinker have been made. Rodin created his first large Bronze version in 1904, which is often regarded as the true original version of the statue since the first incarnation was very small and connected to a series of other pieces.
That bronze 1904 version can be seen at the Rodin Museum in Paris, where it graces the garden, and various other castings of The Thinker can be seen all over the world.
From Poet to Ponderer
In its original framework, The Thinker was actually named The Poet. Given that it was part of an installation called The Gates of Hell, it’s apparent that Dante (poet of The Divine Comedy) was the inspiration for the piece.
Among the other elements of the installation, The Poet sat in the center, apparently thinking back on his work. This adds a much darker context to the origins of the piece, as The Divine Comedy discusses in great detail the levels of Hell.
Still, fans referred to the statue casually as The Thinker since that’s what the figure is actually doing—thinking. Eventually, Rodin gave into this perception and renamed the statue himself as The Thinker. Since it was meant to sit at the top of a doorway, The Thinker is usually placed on a pedestal to allow viewers to take in the statue from below.
A Modern Take
Rodin is sometimes referred to as the Father of Modern Sculpture. This is due largely to the fact that although he sculpted in the style of Michelangelo, Rodin gave his figures passion, and movement. He didn’t confine them to the bounds of perfection, but instead gave them license to experience the full range of human emotion.
Modernist Sculpture took on a life of its own following Rodin. Pablo Picasso, Antony Gormley, and Paul Gauguin are just some of the brilliant artists who followed in Rodin’s tradition. As time went on, sculpture certainly got more abstract that Rodin’s work, but he opened the door to new conventions with the form.
The Thinker is certainly one of the world’s most famous sculptures, and its impact on the art world is still felt today.