This work will be included in the forthcoming Auguste Rodin catalogue critique de l'oeuvre sculpté currently being prepared by the Comité Auguste Rodin at Galerie Brame et Lorenceau under the direction of Jérôme Le Blay under the archive number 2003V271B.
Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur is one of the most iconic sculptures in the history of art. Bent over, with his head resting upon his hand, the figure of a seated man absorbed in a state of deep contemplation has become an instantly recognisable subject the world over, a universal symbol of man’s capacity for intelligence and creative genius. Initially conceived in 1881-1882, Le Penseur was one of the first pieces that Rodin created for his great work, La Porte de l’Enfer. Originally designed to sit on the centre of the tympanum of these magnificent doors, this male figure presided over the dramatic, turbulent vision of Dante’s Divina Commedia that swirls around him, the creator, poet, judge and participant of this dramatic, hallucinatory vision of hell. This powerful figure would soon transcend its original identity however, to become a work that not only defined Rodin’s practice and style, but also came to be regarded as a symbol of the artist, and indeed, humanity itself. This present example, Le Penseur, petit modèle, was cast in 1920-1930, and is characterised by a rich green and brown patina.
Soon after Le Penseur was conceived, Rodin developed the figure into a freestanding, fully modeled sculpture, which received almost immediate acclaim. It was at the landmark Monet-Rodin exhibition of 1889 in Paris that Rodin added the title Le Penseur to this sculpture, which had until this point been known predominantly as Le Poète. Separated from the context of Dante’s Inferno, Le Penseur soon became detached from this searing vision of suffering and pain to instead become a universal image of man that defies a singular interpretation.
The sculptor later explained, ‘The Thinker has a story. In the days long gone by, I conceived the idea of La Porte de l’Enfer. Before the door, seated on a rock, Dante, thinking of the plan of his poem. Behind him, Ugolino, Francesca, Paolo, and all the characters of La Divine Comédie. This project was not realised. Thin, ascetic, Dante separated from the whole would have been without meaning. Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth, his dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator’ (Rodin, quoted in J. Tancock, The Sculpture of Auguste, Philadelphia, 1976, p. 111).
Perhaps the most celebrated of all Rodin's sculptures, Le Penseur belongs to a group of important early works that were inspired by the art of Michelangelo, which had so impressed Rodin on his visit to Italy in 1875. The contrapposto stance of Le Penseur, with his right elbow resting on his left knee, is akin to the curving male body of the allegorical figure of Dusk that flanks one side of the tomb. But the seated, pensive pose of Le Penseur finds its equivalent in Il Pensieroso that sits atop of the tomb. While Rodin looked to Michelangelo as a source of inspiration, he also looked to antiquity, in particular to the Belvedere Torso. Aspects of the pose, proportions and accentuated musculature of Le Penseur are taken from this striking Roman fragment.
Rodin fused his study of Michelangelo with the movements of a live model in his studio to create a figure that was wholly unique. It is this process that enabled Rodin to breathe life into his subjects, seemingly infusing their sculpted bodies with nerves, fibres and sinews. Though he is stationary, there is a sense of dynamism that seems to flow below the surface of his skin, creating a compelling duality between movement and stasis, introspection and action, and the power of the mind and body. Capturing not only the physicality and presence of a male figure, Rodin has therefore given visual form to the very act of thinking and to the capacity of the creative mind. It is these universal concepts that ensure that Le Penseur remains today as visually arresting and compelling as it was when the artist first created it over a century ago.