M. Dandré, Paris (acquired circa 1920-25)
Max Safron Gallery, Saint-Louis
Wildenstein & Co., New York (acquired from the above in 1947)
Private Collection, Detroit (acquired from the above in 1961)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
George Grappe, Catalogue du Musée Rodin, Paris, 1944, illustration of the plaster p. 40
Henri Martinie, Auguste Rodin, Paris, 1949, no. 19, illustration of another cast
Albert E. Elsen, Rodin, New York, 1963, illustrations of other casts pp. 25, 52 & 53
Ionel Jianou & Cécile Goldscheider, Rodin, Paris, 1967, edition catalogued p. 88; illustration of another cast pl. 11
John L. Tancock, The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin, Philadelphia, 1976, edition catalogued and illustrations of other casts pp. 111-20
Albert E. Elsen (ed.), Rodin Rediscovered, Washington, D.C., 1981, illustration of the clay p. 67
Albert E. Elsen, The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin, Stanford, 1985, figs. 50 & 60, illustrations of the clay model pp. 56 & 71
Hélène Pinet, Rodin Sculpteur et les photographes de son temps, Paris, 1985, illustrations of other casts pp. 80-83
Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, The Bronzes of Rodin, Catalogue of Works in the Musée Rodin, Paris, 2007, vol. II, edition catalogued p. 587
Rodin first conceived of this image to crown the tympanum of his monumental Gates of Hell (fig. 3). The figure was intended to represent Dante, surrounded by the characters of his Divine Comedy, but soon took on an independent life. ‘Thin and ascetic in his straight gown,’ Rodin wrote later, ‘my Dante would have been meaningless once divorced from the overall work. Guided by my initial inspiration, I conceived another "thinker", a nude, crouching on a rock, his feet tense. Fists tucked under his chin, he muses. Fertile thoughts grow slowly in his mind. He is no longer a dreamer. He is a creator’ (Rodin, quoted in R. Masson & V. Mattiussi, Rodin, Paris, 2004, p. 38). Transcending Dante's narrative, Le Penseur became a universal symbol of reflection and creative genius.
Rodin envisaged Le Penseur to be the apex, both structurally and philosophically, of his Gates of Hell. As Camille Mauclair noted in 1898, ‘All the sculptural radiance ends in this ideal center. This prophetic statue can carry in itself the attributes of the author of the Divine Comedy, but it is still more completely the representation of Penseur. Freed of clothing that would have made it a slave to a fixed time, it is nothing more than the image of the reflection of man on things human. It is the perpetual dreamer who perceives the future in the facts of the past, without abstracting himself from the noisy life around him and in which he participates’ (C. Mauclair, ‘L'Art de M. Rodin’, in La Revue des Revues, 18th June 1898).
From at least 1888, when the larger version of the sculpture was first exhibited in Copenhagen, Rodin considered Le Penseur to be an autonomous composition. The following year it was shown in Paris, with the original title Dante revised to read Le penseur: le poète. The work's effect on viewers and critics was immediate and potent, allowing it to transcend the larger scheme of La porte de l'enfer. Artists such as Edward Steichen and Edvard Munch worked through a hypnotic attachment to the model. Writer and critic Gabriel Mourey wrote of the work in 1906: ‘he is no longer the poet suspended over the pit of sin and expiation; he is our brother in suffering, curiosity, contemplation, joy, the bitter joy of searching and knowing. He is no longer a superhuman, a predestined human being; he is simply a man for all ages, for all latitudes’ (G. Mourey, ‘Le Penseur de Rodin offert par souscription publique au peuple de Paris’, in Les Arts de la vie, vol. 1, no. 5, May 1904, p. 268).
The figure was discussed by the artist shortly before his death, when he described his desire to personify the act of thinking: ‘Nature gives me my model, life and thought; the nostrils breathe, the heart beats, the lungs inhale, the being thinks and feels, has pains and joys, ambitions, passions, emotions... 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’ (Rodin, quoted in Saturday Night, Toronto, 1st December 1917).
The form of Le Penseur relies upon a historical lineage traceable to Albrecht Dürer’s influential etching Melancolia. Contained within this figural gesture – tilted head resting upon raised hand – were implications of introversion, philosophical crisis and intellectual profundity. Michelangelo, whose art deeply affected Rodin when he first visited Italy in 1875, relied upon a similar form for his personification of Lorenzo de Medici (fig. 2). The allegorical force of this gesture was undeniable by the time Rodin conceived Le Penseur in 1880-81. He strips away the narrative and specificity that permeated these earlier examples, rendering his sculpture with a timeless humanist vision.
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