More than 20 bronze casts of French artist Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (Le Penseur) can be found in museums around the world. It may be the most famous sculpture ever after Michelangelo’s David. First conceived as a depiction of the poet Dante, it has come to symbolise humanity’s striving after knowledge.
Rodin’s The Thinker was intended for The Gates of Hell, a commission from the French government to design a portal for a new Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Rodin based his idea on The Divine Comedy of Dante, originally naming his figure The Poet. Each figure on the portal was to represent one of the main characters in the epic poem. There is a bronze cast of the original twenty-seven inch version of The Thinker dated 1896 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. The first larger than life figure was exhibited at the Salon of 1904, after which a subscription was started for a bronze casting for the city of Paris.
Rodin explained that he first imagined “Dante thinking of the plan of his poem.” He then abandoned that idea: “I conceived of another thinker, a naked man seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.” Cast in bronze only after Rodin’s death, The Gates of Hell are surmounted by The Three Shades, below which sits The Thinker, doubtless brooding over the fate of humanity.
Interestingly, The Kiss (1889) was also intended for The Gates of Hell. Originally titled Francesca da Rimini, it depicts the 13th century Italian noblewoman immortalised in Dante’s Inferno, who falls in love with her husband Giovanni Malatesta’s younger brother Paolo. The couple exchanged vows while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere and are discovered and killed by Francesca’s husband. In the sculpture, the book can be seen in Paolo’s hand. The Kiss was later removed from the Gates and replaced by another pair of lovers.
The first large-scale bronze cast of The Thinker was finished in 1902, but not presented to the public until 1904 when it became the property of the city of Paris and was placed in front of the Panthéon in 1906 (photo left). In 1922, it was moved to the Hôtel Biron, which became the Rodin Museum.
Those who know the history of French writer Henri Alain-Fournier, who wrote Le grand Meaulnes(1913), might recognise the Hôtel Biron as the place where Fournier’s real-life heroine, Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, went to school. She was a day-pupil at the Maison des Anges in the garden of a convent run by the nuns of the Sacred Heart of Jesus situated in the rue de Varenne. The nuns occupied the Hôtel Biron until 1904 when it closed following a law proscribing religious communities.
Alain-Fournier exchanged many letters about the Parisian world of literature and arts with hisclose friend, the writer and editor Jacques Rivière. They probably saw The Thinker while it wasat the Panthéon, but neither would have known its later link to Fournier’s muse -Yvonne de Quiévrecourt.