My art history teacher last year, Chris Fulton, is an authority on Rodin’s great statue The Thinker, a situation that came about by accident. When Chris arrived at the University of Louisville a dozen years ago he noticed that the bronze Thinker who sits on the quad at U of L was much the worse for weather, its patina severely damaged and deteriorating before our eyes. He started to pester the administration to do something about it — our Thinker, the first bronze casting ever made in that size, is priceless. (There are about 28 full-size Thinkers around the world, but we’re number one, a mantra that U of L usually applies to basketball.)
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, at University of Louisville, surrounded by Chris Fulton and his art history students
After years of pestering Chris got them to commit to restoration of the Thinker, but as reward for his good intentions, he got put on the committee. The job was finally completed a year ago, and in the course of his work with the restoration, Chris became quite the expert. He also has begun working with some of the people he met on a larger project to document and study all the Thinkers ever cast.
Hearing him tell about his adventures in Rodin made me especially eager to hit the Musée Rodin when we got to Paris last year. The building used to be Rodin’s studio/workshop, and he donated all his sculptures to the government upon his death on condition that they turn the place into a museum.
Rodin first did The Thinker in 1880 as part of a commission to sculpt two massive front doors for a museum in Paris. The doors depicted the Gates of Hell, a scene from Dante’s Inferno, and Dante himself sat above the lintel contemplating the folly of mankind.
Rodin, La Porte de l’Enfer, third maquette (plaster), 1881-82
The museum was never built, and Rodin kept working on the doors until his death, but it was hardly a failed project!
Rodin, La Porte de l’Enfer, bronze
The huge production spawned many figures and poses that were given their own spinoff series, so to speak. The Thinker was first made as a free-standing statue in 1888, the same size as in the doors (about 28 inches tall).
Rodin, Le Penseur, bronze, 1881-1882 (cast in 1917)
It was so popular that Rodin scaled it up to monumental size, about three times as big. Multiple casts were made in both versions, and one of the big guys is in the garden of the Musée Rodin, thinking under the golden dome of the Invalides.
Rodin, Le Penseur, bronze, 1804
Although Rodin never installed his massive Gates of Hell doors at the museum that commissioned them, the project was a fertile spawning ground for many other sculptures (the Gates themselves showed up in several places, just not where they were originally intended). Most famous is The Thinker, but other bits also stepped out and became free-standing pieces.
Rodin, Le Baiser, 1881-2
This one, representing Paolo and Francesca, doomed lovers from Dante’s Inferno, appeared in early maquettes of the Gates. Rodin decided they were too happy for their surroundings, and took them out of the final version. But never one to waste a good concept, he rendered them in terra cotta here and eventually in a larger marble version.
Rodin, Les Trois Ombres, 1902-4
My favorite spinoff is The Three Shades, who stand at the very top of the Gates, pointing to the ominous words “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” They’re actually identical triplets, each one cast from the same mold, but turned so that they each seem different.
Since learning more about Rodin’s many multiples, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of bronze-cast sculpture, where the artist isn’t closely involved in the actual making of the work. He may hover about the foundry (or in Rodin’s case, send helpers to check on the casting) but it’s not his hand any more at the end of the process. Did it make the sculptor nervous to turn over his baby to somebody else to finish? Was it exhilarating to order up dozens of Thinkers to populate the world? (Just like The Boys from Brazil.) Why do I lose respect for some artists who outsource the making of their work to others, but not for Rodin?