Perhaps the most celebrated sculpture of all time, Rodin's Penseur was conceived in 1880-81 to crown his monumental Gates of Hell. The figure was first intended to represent Dante, surrounded by the characters of his Divine Comedy, but soon took on an independent life. "Thin and ascetic in his straight gown", Rodin wrote later, "my Dante would have been meaningless once divorced from the overall work. Guided by my initial inspiration, I conceived another "thinker", a nude, crouching on a rock, his feet tense. Fists tucked under his chin, he muses. Fertile thoughts grow slowly in his mind. He is no longer a dreamer. He is a creator" (quoted in R. Masson & V. Mattiussi, Rodin, Paris, 2004, p. 38). Transcending Dante's narrative, the Penseur became a universal symbol of reflection and creative genius which has ever since retained its hold on the popular imagination.
Rodin's greatest sculpture bridges antiquity, the Renaissance and modernity. Le Penseur belongs to the group of major sculptures inspired by Michelangelo, whose art deeply affected Rodin when he first visited Italy in 1875. The figure was discussed by the artist shortly before his death, when he described his desire to personify the act of thinking: "Nature gives me my model, life and thought; the nostrils breathe, the heart beats, the lungs inhale, the being thinks and feels, has pains and joys, ambitions, passions, emotions... 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" (quoted in Saturday Night, Toronto, December 1, 1917).
Rodin conceived Le Penseur to be the apex, both structurally and philosophically, of his humanist Gates of Hell. As Camille Mauclair noted in 1898, "All the sculptural radiance ends in this ideal center. This prophetic statue can carry in itself the attributes of the author of the Divine Comedy, but it is still more completely the representation of Penseur. Freed of clothing that would have made it a slave to a fixed time, it is nothing more than the image of the reflection of man on things human. It is the perpetual dreamer who perceives the future in the facts of the past, without abstracting himself from the noisy life around him and in which he participates..." (C. Mauclair, "L'Art de M. Rodin", La Revue des Revues, June 18, 1898). From at least 1888, when the sculpture was first exhibited in Copenhagen, Rodin considered Le Penseur to be an autonomous composition. The following year it was shown in Paris, with the original title Dante revised to read Le penseur: le poète.
The present work is an exceptionally rare lifetime cast in the original format of Rodin's clay model. Created at the end of his life, it bears a beautifully modulated patina that was probably applied by the artist's designated patineur, Jean-François Limet. The bronze was made during World War I at the Alexis Rudier Foundry using the sand casting method employed at this period due to working conditions created by the War. Its first owner was Emile Chouanard, whose collection of Rodin's work included casts of Eve and Le Baiser. Le Penseur was the undisputed trophy of his collection of the artist's bronzes and remained in Chouanard's family for over ninety years. It was first shown in the Rodin exhibition organized by Gustave Danthon at the Galerie Haussmann, Paris, in November 1917 – an exhibition whose vernissage Rodin had been due to attend, but passed away that month.
A cast of the same size, date and foundry is in the Musée Rodin, Paris. Other lifetimes casts are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Nationalgalerie, Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Paris, Galerie Haussmann, Rodin Exposition, 1917
Height: 28 1/2 in. 71.2 cm
Georges Grappe, Catalogue du Musée Rodin, Paris, 1929, nos. 167-69, illustrations of the example at the Musée Rodin pp. 73-74
Henri Martinie, Auguste Rodin, Paris, 1949, no. 19, illustration of another cast
Albert E. Elsen, Rodin, New York, 1963, illustrations of other casts pp. 25, 52 & 53
Ionel Jianou and Cécile Goldscheider, Rodin, Paris, 1967, edition catalogued p. 88; illustration of another cast pl. 11
John L. Tancock, The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin, Philadelphia, 1976, edition catalogued and illustrations of other casts pp. 111-20
Albert E. Elsen (ed.), Rodin Rediscovered, Washington, 1981, illustration of the clay p. 67
Albert E. Elsen, The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin, Stanford, 1985, figs. 50 & 60, illustrations of the clay model pp. 56 & 71
Antoinette le Normand-Romain, ed., The Bronzes of Rodin, Catalogue of works in the Musée Rodin, vol. II, Paris, 2007, illustration of another cast p. 585
Galerie Haussmann (Gustave Danthon), Paris (acquired from the artist; commissioned in November 1916 and delivered in May 1917)
Emile Chouanard, Paris (purchased on March 17, 1917, thence by descent and sold: Baron Ribeyre & Associés, Paris, June 17, 2009, lot 133)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner