An early cast of Le Penseur is on sale later this month at Christie’s Paris
As a young man Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) went everywhere with a small copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in his pocket, reading and re-reading it whenever he had a spare moment. By the time he first conceived his sculpture Le Penseur [The Thinker], in 1880, he had been absorbing Dante’s narrative themes for well over a decade. ‘My head was like an egg ready to hatch,’ he later recalled.
Rodin conceived the figure as part of La Porte de l’Enfer [The Gates of Hell], a pair of monumental doors representing a scene from Dante’s Inferno, which the sculptor worked on for 37 years until his death. The meditative central figure above the doors was originally meant to represent Dante contemplating his oeuvre. But Rodin soon opted for something more universal that would encompass the image of a creator.
The Thinker, in all its muscular singularity, took its definitive form in 1882 as a terracotta model. ‘What makes my thinker think,’ Rodin said, ‘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.’
In 1884 Rodin detached the clay figure from La Porte de l’Enfer and cast it in bronze as a standalone sculpture. This original version, which at 71.3cm is the same height as the figure on the lintel of the sculpted doorway, became known as Penseur: Taille de la Porte, dit ‘Moyen Modèle’ [door-sized, medium model].
The Musée Rodin records 17 bronze casts of The Thinker at its original scale being produced during Rodin’s lifetime. An additional 17 bronzes at the same scale were then cast between 1919 and 1945, and a final nine between 1954 and 1969. From the two earlier editions no more than ten remain in private hands.
One of these, an exquisitely patinated bronze cast of The Thinker from about 1928, is the highlight of the auction Le Grand Style: An apartment on the Quai d’Orsay designed by Alberto Pinto at Christie’s Paris on 30 June. Under the supervision of the Musée Rodin it was sand-casted from a plaster model by the Alexis Rudier foundry in Paris.
‘The Musée Rodin was the first owner of this work,’ says Anika Guntrum, International Director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s France. ‘We know this because before his death Rodin gave the Musée Rodin the rights to cast and sell his work.’
The current owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, acquired his Thinker from Tokyo’s Kobayashi Gallery in 1996. He found a place for it in the grand salon of his apartment on the Quai d’Orsay, in front of a large bay window overlooking the Seine. The work will be on view for a week at Christie’s Paris from 23 June until the auction. ‘At the viewing we are going to try to marry two needs,’ says Guntrum. ‘People will be able to examine the sculpture, but we also want to create a sense of the monumentality Rodin was trying to achieve.’
The Thinker was the earliest in a long line of figures from La Porte de l’Enfer that Rodin developed into autonomous works, including The Kiss (1882) and The Three Shades (1886). It was first exhibited as a larger version in Copenhagen in 1888 with the title Le Poète. The next year it was shown at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris as Le Penseur, Le Poète, Fragment de la porte, and finally in Geneva in 1896 with the title by which it is known today.
The sculpture began its rise to fame in 1904, when an enlarged bronze version of it was exhibited for the first time at the Salon de Paris. It was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm, and when a public appeal for funds to buy it was launched donations poured in. The sculpture became the property of the City of Paris and was placed in front of the Pantheon in 1906. It was moved in 1922 to the Musée Rodin.
‘To actually make a human form pulse with life in bronze is difficult,’ says Guntrum. ‘If you think about the creative process, it’s a very dynamic pose, with the right elbow on the left knee, the brow furrowed in thought, and the whole body very tense. In and of itself it’s an incredible artistic creation.’
Rodin was confident of his own greatness, and made sure his reputation outlived him. He donated all his own works and his art collection to the French state on the promise they would be shown in a museum dedicated to him. The Musée Rodin opened in the former Hôtel Biron, which he had used as a studio, two years after his death.
‘He stipulated that casts could be made to fulfil public demand to ensure his works could be collected,’ says Guntrum. ‘You have to be able to stoke desire to keep interest alive, otherwise it just fades away and collectors move on to other artists. Rodin was wise enough to know that scarcity can kill a market, but today most collectors can only dream about owning a work like The Thinker.’