Le penseur was conceived circa 1880 for the center of the tympanum of Rodin's La porte de l'Enfer. Rodin later explained the genesis of his project, "The Thinker has a story. In the days long gone by, I conceived the idea of the Gates of Hell. Before the door, seated on a rock, Dante, thinking of the plan of his poem. Behind him, Ugolino, Francesca, Paolo, all the characters of the Divine Comedy. This project was not realized. Thin, ascetic, Dante separated from the whole naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist at this teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates iteself in the brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator" (quoted in A.E. Elsen, op. cit., 1963, p. 53).
Rodin expressed his own thoughts directly in a plastic medium and thus it is no suprise that he aimed to combine within Le penseur the attributes of both physical and mental acumen. This monumental figure, possibly his most celebrated work, was discussed by the sculptor shortly before his death, where he stressed the physicality and the vitality and power of the creative mind, "Nature gives me my model life and thought; the nostrils breathe, the heart beats, the lungs inhale ... the being thinks and feels...What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, with his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes" (quoted in Saturday Night, Toronto, December 1917).
Le penseur belongs to the group of major early works inspired by Michelangelo, whose sculpture had greatly impressed Rodin during his visit to Italy in 1875. Rodin considered Le penseur to be valid as an independent work and exhibited it on its own in Copenhagen in 1888.