Property from The Smith Family Collection
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 2014-4335B.
The present bronze is an early and exceptionally high-quality cast, with an exquisite black and brown patina, of Le Penseur, Rodin’s iconic modern sculpture of a powerfully cogitating man. “What makes my Thinker think,” the artist explained, “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 J. Tancock, op. cit., 1976, p. 112). The Penseur offered here was cast in 1924 by the Alexis Rudier Foundry, known for creating some of the most desirable bronzes of Rodin’s oeuvre; it was acquired in the very month of its casting by Augustus Smith, an American engineer who had admired the colossal version of the sculpture at the Saint Louis World’s Fair two decades earlier. The present bronze has never again changed hands, remaining a treasured possession of Smith and his descendants for nearly a full century.
Rodin originally conceived Le Penseur as part of La porte de l’enfer, his monumental gateway representing Dante’s Inferno. The French State awarded Rodin the commission for the portal in 1880, and Le Penseur was among the earliest figures that he modeled for the project. At first, he intended the ruminating man as an image of Dante contemplating his own work and considered reproducing the poet’s gaunt physique and historical garb. He soon opted to divest the sculpture of such explicit reference, though, producing a timeless and universal symbol of reflection and creative genius. Le Penseur had achieved its definitive form by 1882, when the clay model was photographed in the studio; by 1884, Rodin had detached the figure from La Porte and cast it in bronze as an independent sculpture.
“The Thinker has a story,” the sculptor explained. “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 in his straight robe 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 at his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator” (quoted in A.E. Elsen, op. cit., 2003, p. 175).
Rodin was a daring choice for the commission of La porte de l’enfer, which was designated for a proposed Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. He had first exhibited at the Salon only three years earlier, at the age of 37; the astonishing veracity of his public debut, the life-sized male nude L’age d’arain, had given rise to accusations—unwarranted and ultimately dispelled—that he had cast the figure from life. Yet he won the unequivocal confidence of Edmond Turquet, the recently appointed Undersecretary of State for Fine Arts, who was eager to demonstrate the progressive stance of the new arts administration with the commission of La Porte.
Turquet granted Rodin a spacious studio at the state-owned Dépôt des Marbres and ample funds to hire models. The sculptor also insisted upon unprecedented autonomy in choosing the format and even the subject matter of the doors. An avid reader of Dante, he had made drawings on Dantesque themes for well over a decade, and his 1876 sculpture Ugolin assis was inspired by the poet’s thirty-third canto. “Dante’s Divina Commedia—it was always in my pocket,” Rodin later recalled. “I read it every time I had a free moment. My head was like an egg ready to hatch. Turquet broke the shell” (quoted in R. Masson and V. Mattiussi, op. cit., 2004, p. 26).
Rodin initially turned for formal inspiration to Ghiberti’s doors for the Florence Baptistery, which he had admired on his journey to Italy in 1875-1876. His earliest sketches for La porte de l’enfer show a compartmentalized structure with eight independent panels, each illustrating a major incident from the Inferno. He soon broke free from this traditional model, though, and forged a unreservedly novel solution that transcends the banal realm of narrative. On each of the double doors, he placed a single towering panel, filled with a lava-like flow of nearly two hundred anguished and tormented figures, floating and churning in a free matrix. Rather than a literal sculptural equivalent of Dante’s theological ordering, he created in this way his own personal accounting of the moral costs of modern life. “The word gave way to the reality of moving flesh, stretched muscles, arched backs, to provocative buttocks, grasping hands, collapsed bodies, exhausted countenances,” Albert E. Elsen has written (op. cit., 2003, p. 170).
From the outset, Rodin envisaged Le Penseur as the linchpin of this tragic and timeless epic. The nude, pondering man appears in a rough but recognizable prototype at the very center of the tympanum in the sculptor’s third maquette for the gateway, which may date as early as 1880. In the completed portal, the figure retains this position of prominence, set off from the sea of writhing bodies on a projecting console—the visionary surrounded by his vast and complex vision.
In its final form, Le Penseur depicts a man with a mature, lined face and a rugged, powerful body. His knobby musculature, hunched posture, and rocky seat derive from the ancient Belvedere Torso; his head is lowered and his chin rests against his hand, a traditional posture of meditation and introspection dating back to Dürer’s influential engraving Melencolia (1514). Although the brooding power of Le Penseur recalls works such as Michelangelo’s Il Pensieroso, which Rodin had admired on his trip to Florence, a sense of suffering and struggle now supplants the calm immobility of Michelangelo’s muscular intellectual. The novel, cross-wise pose that Rodin exploits—the right elbow resting on the left knee—creates an effect of unmitigated self-absorption, while the curved back, straining shoulders, and pulsing veins accentuate the total effort required of mind and body alike to resolve a difficult problem.
Le Penseur was the earliest in a long line of figures from La Porte that Rodin brought forth as autonomous works. He first cast the sculpture in bronze in 1884, as noted above; it was exhibited in Copenhagen in 1888 with the title Le Poète, the next year at the Galerie Georges Petit 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 astonishing rise to fame in the early years of the twentieth century, when Rodin enlarged it to colossal proportions, as well as reducing it to smaller sizes. He first showed the monumental Penseur in public at the Paris Salon in 1904, where it aroused such wide-reaching enthusiasm that Gabriel Mourey, editor of Les arts de la vie, launched a public subscription to purchase it for the State. Donations streamed in from all quarters, and the colossal bronze was installed in front of the Panthéon in 1906. “The work’s success far outstripped anything Rodin could have imagined,” Antoinette Le Normand-Romain has written (op. cit., 2007, vol. 2, p. 594).
By this time, Le Penseur had thoroughly transcended its origins in La porte de l’enfer. France was in the grip of social and economic strife, and the sculpture was now perceived as a veritable homage to the people—not a fatalistic poet-hero ruminating over mankind’s tragic destiny, but instead an ordinary worker engrossed in thought after his labors, an enduring symbol of resourcefulness and hope. “We have chosen this magnificent work from among all the others,” explained Mourey, “because it is no longer the poet suspended over the gulfs of sin and expiation, crushed by pity and terror at the inflexibility of a dogma, it is no longer the exceptional being, the hero; it is our brother in suffering, in curiosity, in thought, in joy, the bitter joy of seeing and knowing; it is no longer a superhuman being, one predestined, it is simply a man of all times” (quoted in R. Masson and V. Mattiussi, op. cit., 2004, p. 114).
It was at this very same moment—at the 1904 World’s Fair held in St. Louis, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase—that Augustus Smith (1868-1932), the earliest owner of the present bronze, first saw Rodin’s work. Raised in New York in a townhouse on West 44th Street that still stands today, Smith graduated from Columbia University in 1889 and went on to a successful career as a civil engineer and contractor. He built the West Bank Lighthouse at the entrance to New York Harbor, founded a prosperous steel-fabrication business, and designed and patented a coal-handing system that was installed at either end of the Panama Canal. At the World’s Fair in 1904, this man of science—himself a thinker—must have been struck by the colossal bronze Penseur, newly cast, that presided over the wide-ranging exhibition.
Smith did not acquire Le Penseur right away; the cast that he saw in St. Louis subsequently entered the collection of railroad magnate Henry Walters and is now displayed on the campus of the University of Louisville. Yet Smith did not forget Rodin’s iconic figure. In November 1924, he contacted the Musée Rodin to inquire about the cost of Le Penseur; on 5 December, he commissioned the present bronze directly from the museum for 30,000 francs. The sculpture was cast that same month and left France by boat, bound for New York City, on 6 March 1925.
The Musée Rodin records 17 bronze casts of Le Penseur at its original, and present, scale that were produced during Rodin’s lifetime by the foundries Griffoul, François Rudier, and Alexis Rudier; after the sculptor’s death, between 1919 and 1945, Alexis Rudier cast an additional 17 bronzes under the supervision of the Musée, of which the present Penseur is an early example. A final nine casts of the sculpture were cast by Georges Rudier in 1954-1969. From the two earlier editions, no more than ten casts total remain in private hands; at least twenty-four are housed in major institutions around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; and National Gallery of Western Art, Tokyo.
Property from The Smith Family Collection
Le Penseur, taille de la porte dit "moyen modèle"
signed ‘A. Rodin’ (on the right side); inscribed with foundry mark ‘ALEXIS RUDIER Fondeur. PARIS’ (on the back of the mound); with raised signature ‘A. Rodin’ (on the underside)
Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)
R.M. Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Leipzig, 1913 (other versions illustrated, pls. 43-44).
G. Grappe, Catalogue du Musée Rodin, Paris, 1929, pp. 73-74 (other casts and versions illustrated).
H. Martinie, Auguste Rodin, Paris, 1949, no. 19 (another cast illustrated).
C. Goldscheider, Rodin, Paris, 1962, p. 65 (another version illustrated).
A.E. Elsen, Rodin, New York, 1963, pp. 52-53, 55 and 57 (larger version illustrated, pp. 52 and 54).
B. Champigneulle, Rodin, London, 1967, pp. 130, 133 and 281 (larger version illustrated, p. 131, fig. 53; larger version illustrated again, p. 132, fig. 55).
R. Descharnes and J.-F. Chabrun, Auguste Rodin, Lausanne, 1967, p. 75 (another cast illustrated, p. 74).
I. Jianou and L. Goldscheider, Rodin, Paris, 1967, p. 88 (another cast illustrated, pl. 11).
L. Goldscheider, Rodin: Sculptures, London, 1970, pp. 8 and 117 (plaster version illustrated, pl. 14; larger cast illustrated, pls. 15-16).
J.L. Tancock, The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin: The Collection of the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, 1976, pp. 111-112, 114 and 116-120, no. 3a (another cast illustrated, p. 113; larger version illustrated, p. 115).
A.E. Elsen, ed., Rodin: Rediscovered, Washington, D.C., 1981, p. 333, no. 261 (clay version illustrated, p. 67, figs. 3.11-3.12).
C. Vincent, "Rodin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A History of the Collection" in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 4, Spring 1981, pp. 4-5, 7 and 11 (another cast illustrated, p. 6, fig. 3).
P. Gsell, Rodin on Art and Artists, New York, 1983, pp. 10 and 82 (another version illustrated, p. 12).
A.E. Elsen, The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin, Stanford, 1985, pp. 57-58 and 72 (clay version illustrated, figs. 50, 52 and 60).
R. Grunfeld, Rodin: A Biography, New York, 1987, pp. 187, 192, 366, 425, 431, 445, 460, 466, 468, 502, 503-505, 550 and 557.
P.J. Marandel, "Rodin's 'Thinker': Notes on the Early History of the Detroit Cast" in Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. 63, no. 3/4, 1988, pp. 33 and 42 (another version illustrated, p. 32).
R. Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius, New Haven, 1993, pp. 158, 219, 388, 340, 355, 361, 377, 388, 404, 408, 413, 414, 417, 422-427, 429-433, 448-449, 452, 465 and 515 (larger version illustrated, pp. 157, 383 and 428, figs. 63, 155 and 177).
F. Fergonzi, M.M. Lamberti and C. Riopelle, Michelangelo nell’Ottocento: Rodin e Michelangelo, Florence, 1996, p. 80, no. 15 (another cast illustrated, pp. 42, 81 and 124).
R. Butler and S.G. Lindsay, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue: European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century, New York, 2000, pp. 321-325 and 376 (another cast illustrated, pp. 323-324; larger version illustrated, p. 325).
I. Ross and A. Snow, Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, New York, 2001, pp. 96 and 175 (another cast illustrated on a frontispiece; other casts and versions illustrated, p. 97, pl. 73).
A. Le Normand Romain, Rodin: The Gates of Hell, Paris, 2002, pp. 66 and 68-69 (other casts and versions illustrated, pp. 67-69).
A.E. Elsen, Rodin’s Art: The Rodin Collection of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, New York, 2003, pp. 161, 169, 170 and 174-175, no. 38 (other casts and versions illustrated, pp. 174-179, figs. 131-134 and 136).
R. Masson and V. Mattiussi, Rodin, Paris, 2004, pp. 38 and 40 (larger version illustrated, pp. 38-39).
R.M. Rilke, Auguste Rodin: Illustrated, New York, 2006 (reprint), p. 77 (larger version illustrated).
A. Le Normand-Romain, The Bronzes of Rodin: Catalogue of Works in the Musée Rodin, Paris, 2007, vol. II, pp. 584-595 (other casts and versions illustrated).
A. Le Normand-Romain, Rodin, New York, 2014, pp. 1, 42, 80, 90, 91-92, 95, 105, 118, 178, 339-340, 344, 389 and 390 (other casts and versions illustrated).
Musée Rodin, Paris.
M. Augustus Smith, New Jersey (acquired from the above, December 1924).
By descent from the above to the present owners.