The Thinker was originally conceived not in heroic isolation, but as part of Rodin's monumental Gates of Hell—a pair of bronze doors intended for a museum of decorative arts in Paris. Although the doors were never cast during the sculptor's lifetime, they nevertheless provided Rodin a rich source of ideas for individual figures and groups that he worked and reworked for the rest of his career.
The theme for Gates of Hell was taken from Dante's Inferno, and this figure, planned for the lintel on top, was initially conceived as the poet himself. His nudity, though, marked him as a universal embodiment of every poet—every creator—who draws new life from the imagination. In the late 1880s Rodin began to exhibit the figure, sometimes with the title Poet, other times as Poet/Thinker. By 1896, however, it had become simply The Thinker, a still more universal image that reveals in physical terms the mental effort and even anguish of creativity. As Rodin himself described: "What makes my Thinker think 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."
Rodin's Thinker exists today in many casts and sizes. More than fifty are known in this size—which is the size of Rodin's original handmade clay model.
incised on base at left side: A. Rodin; on lower left side of the interior of base: A. Rodin
Purchased 1903 from the artist by Mr. and Mrs. John W. Simpson, New York; gift 1942 to NGA.
- Loan Collection of Paintings by Claude Monet and Eleven Sculptures by Auguste Rodin, The Copley Society of Boston, Copley Hall, 1905, no. 2.
- [Exhibition of drawings by Auguste-Rodin, photographs of Rodin and his work by Edward Steichen, and The Thinker], Photo-Secession Gallery, New York, 1910.
- Rodin: Sculpture, Drawings, Prints, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 7.
- Wax Sculptures by Degas, Sculptures and Drawings by Rodin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965-1966, no cat.
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- Grappe, Georges. Catalogue du Musée Rodin. 5th ed. Paris, 1944: 24-25.
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- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 148, repro.
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- Elsen, Albert E. The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin. Stanford, California, 1985: 56-57.
- Jamison, Rosalyn Frankel. "Rodin and Hugo: The Nineteenth-Century Theme of Genius in "The Gates" and Related Works." Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1986: 69-122.
- Beausire, Alain. Quand Rodin Exposait. Paris, 1988: 99, 105, 156, 185, 195, 220, 242, 265, 266, 271, 286, 302, 307, 314, 315, 349, 366, 368.
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- Butler, Ruth. Rodin. The Shape of Genius. New Haven and London, 1993: 423-435.
- Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994: 208, repro.
- Kausch, Michael. Auguste Rodin: Eros und Leidenschaft. Exh. cat. Harrach Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1996: 166-168.
- Porter, John R., and Yves Lacasse. Rodin à Quebec. Quebec, 1998: 78-83.
- Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 321-326, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000:62.