Rodin's The Thinker

 I recently visited San Francisco and went to the Legion of Honor Museum.  I saw many wonderful works of art but was really happy to get to see one of the bronze casts of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.  This sculpture has been cast in bronze nearly 25 times and those works are located in a variety of museums and parks throughout the world.  In addition there have also been several smaller versions of the sculpture cast in materials other than bronze.

I personally have also seen Rodin's The Thinker at the Rodin Museum in Paris and the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and every time I am struck by this profoundly beautiful work.

This is probably the most famous of all of Rodin's sculptures, an image synonymous with the sculptor himself.

Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). The Thinker, 1903. Cast bronze, Rodin Museum in Paris

The sculpture was intended to portray the great 14th century Italian author and poet Dante Alighieri.  However it has now been transformed by those who observe it to represent a man in thought, or the idea of the thoughts of humanity.  It was originally called The Poet to refer to Dante.


Rodin undertook an enormous project to create a set of doors for the French Decorative Arts Museum in Paris and the theme for this was the Gates of Hell from Dante's Inferno (from his Divine Comedy), the author's imaginings on hell and afterlife.  Another of Rodin's most famous sculptures, The Kiss, also represents characters from Dante's Inferno, the star crossed lovers Francesca and Paolo.

Rodin, The Gates of Hell, 1917, one of the three original bronze casts
 Rodin Sculpture National Museum of Western Art Ueno Taito-ku Tokyo Japan

Like The Thinker or many of Rodin's other bronze sculptures, The Gates of Hell has also been cast many times.  A detail is shown above with The Thinker at the top in the tympanum of the door looking down upon everything.  The entire sculptural work contains 180 figures and this version of The Thinker is much smaller than the more well known over life size work.

This sculpture is a good example of the naturalism that Rodin was famous for.  Take a minute to carefully observe this figure, his muscles, bones and facial expressions are all taken straight from life and nothing is idealized or over dramatized as some works of art were at this time.
Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). The Thinker, 1904. Cast bronze
Gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels


Dante is portrayed as being deep in thought in this contemplative pose.  Depending on the sources that I have read over he is either meant to be shown thinking about what he is about to write, what he has written, the fate of those in hell (since it was conceived as a part of The Gates of Hell from Dante's Inferno) or the fate of mankind.  It is certainly possible that he could be thinking about all of those ideas.

Your Art History Blogger in front of Rodin's The Thinker at the Legion of Honor


There are several other works and artists which have been said to have inspired Rodin.  Rodin was influenced quite a bit by the muscular nudes of Michelangelo such as can be seen below from a section of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.  The athletic male nudes that surround each larger fresco have come to be called "ignudi" and the poses of the various ignudi inspired Rodin.  The particular seated pose could also have been inspired by Michelangelo's figure of Lorenzo de'Medici from the Medici family tomb in San Lorenzo in Florence.


Another source of inspiration was said to have come from the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's statue of Ugolino.  Ugolino was another character from the Inferno and he met his end by starving to death while imprisoned.

Rodin had spoken frequently of his debt to Michelangelo's work.  During his lifetime he traveled to Florence and had visited the Casa Buonarroti which is a museum honoring the Renaissance master.
God Separating Darkness and Light, Michelangelo
Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, 1508-12 
 Ugolino, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1867-1869) Petit Palais, Paris
 Gift of Louise Clément-Carpeaux, daughter of the artist, 1938

In addition to The Thinker, which sits outside in the entrance courtyard,  The Legion of Honor has a gallery devoted to the beautiful sculptures of Auguste Rodin.  I recommend that anyone who is visiting San Francisco should take a tour through this museum.

Suggested Reading:
Fergonzi, Flavio. Miaria Mimita Lamberti, Pina Ragionieri and Christopher Riopelle. Rodin and Michelangelo, A study in Artistic Inspiration. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1996.


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