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The Thinker By Rodin: Great Art Explained

In Paris at the Rodin museum is “Le Penseur”,
a six foot tall, bronze statue of a naked man.   It is an original sculpture by August Rodin.
In San Francisco we can find “The Thinker”. It too, is an original sculpture by August Rodin.
In Buenos Aires, Rodin’s “original” is called “El Pensador”.   And in Copenhagen they also have an original thinker.
In Stockholm we find another – “original”. One of at least 28 full-size statues of the 
Thinker worldwide. All considered Rodin “originals”. Even though the sculptor didn’t make them.   Half of these Thinkers were not even made during
Rodin’s lifetime, or under his supervision. Rodin was as much an entrepreneur,
as he was a sculptor. In fact he never   produced a work in plaster, bronze or even marble 
with his own hands. His works were made by a large   team of highly trained plaster casters, carvers, and
founders who turned his ideas into finished works of art. Like many contemporary artists today, 
Rodin had an industrial approach to producing art.   An approach to this day, that still poses 
questions of “authenticity” and “originality”. Rodin shows us that a great artist should be judged by 
what’s in his head, and not what’s in his hands. The thinker captured in a moment of concentrated 
introspection, has come to represent a multitude of   ideas about the nature of man and his place in 
the world. For some it is a symbol of knowledge,   others philosophy, even existence itself.
As the critic Gabrielle Mouret said:   “It is simply a man for all time”.
Yet Rodin had no intention of producing such a complex   universal symbol when he first conceived the idea. 
And The Thinker itself might never have existed   if Rodin had been accepted by the 
establishment in the first place. Rejection played a great part in Rodin’s career trajectory.
Born to a working-class family in 1840,   he was turned down by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 
Paris three times. It would steer Rodin towards   a training in commercial studios, and an aesthetic 
far removed from the rigid rules of the mainstream.   The problem was, he may have escaped the 
neoclassical training that still dominated the academy. But he missed out on the early 
success that graduates were ordinarily assured.   Rodin instead, served a long apprenticeship as a 
jobbing craftsman in dozens of studios.   Learning numerous skills that would serve his own practice. 
Later in his free time he was finding his own way. Attending life classes in the evening, and 
working on his own projects But at 36 years-old, Rodin, struggling with his career
was going through a period of intense re-evaluation.   His extensive training up until that 
point, gave him unparalleled technical   virtuosity, but the work he produced was 
conventional and essentially decorative.  in 1876, Rodin would risk everything and embark on 
a trip to Italy to study the works of Michelangelo.  A trip that has been described as
“one of the seminal events in modern art”.   Rodin traveled to Italy in order to uncover the 
secrets of the man he called “the great magician”.   It is likely that he probably would have remained 
just another talented craftsman, if he hadn’t taken the trip. “Michelangelo” he later said “liberated 
me from academic sculpture”. The trip would teach   Rodin many things, but it was the discovery of the 
potential for expressionism in the naked body    that would transform Rodin’s work. How the body could 
be both universally expressive and deeply personal.   For the rest of Rodin’s career, he would use the 
human form as the ideal vehicle for conveying   inner emotion and complex symbolic thought.
Like his hero, he would make stone “breathe”.   On his return to Paris, Rodin was still working 
for other studios. A piece attributed to him for   the Carrier-Belleuse studio, was inspired by 
Michelangelo’s twisted bodies. We see these   twisted poses again and again with Rodin, and the 
nude as a heroic figure is classic Michelangelo.   He found the unfinished works of the italian master 
equally powerful, and would purposely leave his own   works unfinished, leaving the seam lines left by 
plaster moulds or finger marks as a challenge to   what constituted a finished work. Something he was 
criticized for at the time. But these “imperfections”   are what give Rodin’s work a restlessness and 
a tension, not found in the classical approach at the time. At the age of 37 he would show his 
first important sculpture at the Paris salon.  What was unusual, was the work wasn’t an illustration of 
a classical story, wasn’t a classical hero, wasn’t   anything really. Shockingly, for the first time,
it was just a male figure – it was “art for art’s sake”.   Inspired by both Michelangelo AND classical Greek 
sculpture (which had itself inspired Michelangelo),   it was way ahead of its time, and was fiercely 
rejected by the critics, due to its extreme naturalism. Because it was exactly life size, Rodin was
accused of “cheating”, by using a life cast of his sitter. He was found innocent, but he would 
never make an exact life-size sculpture again.   From then on, he would either make his 
figures smaller or larger than life.   The subsequent scandal made Rodin a household name, 
and would lead to his first major commission.   THIS was where all of Rodin’s 
new ideas would come to fruition.   For most people there is only one Thinker, and it 
is big and bronze. But the first Thinker was small,  made of clay by Rodin’s own hand, and it wasn’t 
called “The Thinker”. In 1880 Rodin was commissioned   to make the monumental entrance doors to the 
Decorative Arts museum in Paris. The museum never opened and the gates were never finished. Even though Rodin continued to work on the project   for the rest of his life. The commission however,
would give birth to two of his greatest sculptures,   and push the boundaries of sculpture ,in new 
and radical ways. The theme of the gates was   Dante’s Inferno, and seated on the tympanum was 
the figure that twenty years later would become   “The Thinker”, but in 1880, he was still known as “The Poet”, 
and represented the writer Dante Alighieri.   Dante is surrounded by 180 of his creations, from his epic 
poem. He is leaning forward to observe the circles   of Hell, while meditating on his work.
Rodin’s placing of a centralised figure, presiding over   the gates, reminds us of Michelangelo’s Christ at 
the centre of “The Last Judgment’.   Rodin would take inspiration from Michelangelo’s twisted 
and tortured bodies for “The Gates of Hell”, but would add a sensual and erotic 
element not seen before in Western art.  Dante as a muscular, naked male may seem absurd 
when we think of classic images of him.   But Rodin himself said “Thin. ascetic Dante in his straight 
robe, separated from all the rest would have been   without meaning. I conceived another Thinker,
a naked man seated on a rock, the fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his 
brain. He is no longer “a dreamer”. He is “a creator”.   In 1884, still twenty years before Rodin 
started producing his large-scale thinkers,   he produced the very first small-scale 
bronze cast of the figure, for a private collector.   There are unexpected details. The most 
obvious being, that he is wearing a “Florentine cap”,   found in no other examples of the work. When this 
cast was made, it seems likely that Rodin believed   the Florentine cap was necessary to suggest, 
that this naked athlete was an image of Dante.   But this detail disappeared in future castings, 
as the work gradually took on a more universal sense, and ultimately “The Poet” became “The Thinker”. 
Rodin was always experimenting, and it is why each Thinker is unique. Photography was important to him, 
and he used photographs of his work to try out new   ideas, sketching directly onto the image. Here we 
see him early on, trying out a cap on The Thinker.   These small bronze castings were an immediate 
and considerable success, but apart from the 1884 casting, make no more references to Dante.
The figure was highly influenced by Michelangelo.   The taught muscular nude, the sense of movement the 
dynamic pose gives, which at first seemed natural,   but in fact is anything but. The man’s right arm on 
his left knee is twisted in an extremely unnatural  way. Possibly inspired by this sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
It was around 1903 that “The Poet” got his new name. It was given the name, not by the artist,
but by foundry workers, who thought it looked similar to a statue of Lorenzo de Medici, by Michelangelo,
also known as “Il Penseroso”… “The Thinker”. Despite this 1905 film of Rodin,
he never carved with a hammer and chisel,   but rather, primarily modelled in clay, for 
others to carve in marble or cast into bronze. It was standard practice in the 19th 
century to have a team recreate your works.  There was a huge demand for public statuary, 
and many artists had large studios turning out   editions of their greatest hits. Rodin modelled 
directly from life, with no preparatory sketches.   Yet drawing was integral to Rodin’s practice, and 
he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the human body. But he rarely used them as studies or projects 
for a sculpture or monument. More as a way of   informing his practice. As Rodin himself said:
“It’s very simple – my drawings are the key to my work”.   When making a clay figure, he worked very quickly. 
Stopping occasionally, but rapidly executing ideas   as they came into his head. He would ask the models 
to move around as he worked, and not to “pose”,   but to act natural. It was in these clay figures 
where we see the physical mark of the artist.   Traces of his fingerprints are often visible 
on the surface of his original plaster casts.   Clay deteriorates very quickly unless it 
is kept wet. In order to preserve his work   a plaster version would be cast. Rodin would 
select one of the plaster casts for exhibition,   and buyers would then order a bronze cast or 
stone carving, which would then be made by his team.   The small clay figure Rodin made in 1880 for 
“The Gates of Hell” was enlarged by a consortium   of third-party moulders and casters, for the 
first time in 1903 – under the artist’s direction.   In the same year, the first Thinker 
was cast in bronze using the “lost wax method”.   This method produced hollow bronzes, with 
thin walls, which allowed larger statues to be produced, improve the qualities of the cast, and 
reduce the amount of expensive metal required.   There is no record of the clay figures Rodin made, 
as it would be destroyed in the casting process.  His assistants would take the original plaster 
model, and make a mold, which is the exact negative   of the original model. Then molten wax is poured 
into the mould, and swished around until an even   coating (usually about three millimetres thick)
covers the inner surface of the mold. Then the hollow interior is filled with core material, 
which could resist the heat of the molten bronze.   The mold is then heated up and the wax melts, 
leaving a hollow gap between the molds where the wax once was. Giving the process its name – 
“lost wax”. Then the bronze is heated to 2000   degrees Fahrenheit till molten. And it is then 
poured in to fill the cavities left by the wax.   Once the metal has cooled and solidified, the 
plaster mold is broken and the metal models are removed. The process is more complicated than that,
but this gives a general idea of the casting process, and shows us how Rodin could 
produce dozens of originals from one plaster mold.   We can trace these “mass production methods” back 
to his early training in commercial studios. Rodin would make a fortune, while blurring the boundaries 
as to “what made a work of art an original”. The first large-scale Thinker was shown at 
the Paris salon of 1904. It was a huge success   and was bought for the city of Paris by public 
subscription, and placed in front of the Pantheon.   The inaugural speech declared: “This is the 
angel of liberty, this is the giant of light”.   It was eventually moved to the Rodin 
museum, where it sits today.  A museum set up while Rodin was still alive, that 
still own the rights to cast Rodin “originals”.   It is important to remember that, in his 
lifetime, Rodin had very little to do with his work   once it left the sculpture stand.
He left it to his assistants.   Today, that is the job of the Rodin museum. In the 1860s, when Rodin began making sculptures, art was deeply rooted in the past. By the time he died in 1917,
it had been transformed into something modern. Today his pioneering work is seen as a critical 
link between traditional and contemporary art.   His story is an old-fashioned “rags to riches” story.
Born into poverty, he was pretty poor   up until his forties. Rejected by the art 
establishment, he followed his own path.   He managed to save enough money to travel to Italy, 
where he fell under the spell of Michelangelo. It transformed him. And Rodin went from a lackluster 
career, to becoming a hugely successful artist.   It gave him untold wealth and fame, and allowed him
to live the life, most artists could only dream of. By the time of his death from influenza in 1917,   Rodin would be known as the “new Michelangelo”. 
For a working class, largely self-educated man   this would be a title, he would have 
been more than honored to receive.
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