Few sculptures are as iconic as Auguste Rodin's The Thinker. Even if you think you know all there is to this contemplative carving, we'd wager there are some surprises on this list.
1. The Thinker is the breakout star of a bigger work.
The depiction of a nude man hunched over in apparent thought was originally part of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. Standing nearly 20 feet tall, the work was meant to capture the first section of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Divine Comedy. The Thinker can be seen perched above the door.
2. The Gates of Hell was commissioned for an ill-fated museum.
Rodin was hired to make the sculpture for a new museum of decorative arts in Paris. The grand size and incredible detail of the towering piece required 37 years of work from Rodin. In all that time, the Gates of Hell was never finished and the museum itself was never built.
3. The Thinker is not its given name.
Rodin originally called this pondering figure The Poet. This name supports the theory that the statue was meant as a depiction of Dante. But because The Thinker doesn’t fit with the 19th century view of a tall, slim Dante, some have seen a more allegorical nature: They theorize that it might be Rodin himself regarding his creation, or perhaps the biblical Adam considering the sins of his descendants. The name The Thinker is credited to foundry workers who felt the sculpture bore a notable resemblance to Michelangelo's sculpture of the same name.
4. Michelangelo's work was an influence on the piece.
However, it wasn't Michelangelo’s pose Rodin was purposefully referencing. Rodin chose to make his Thinker naked to follow in the style of the heroic nudes of Michelangelo and his Renaissance brethren. It's also suspected that the works of Rodin's contemporary, German sculptor Hugo Rheinhold, were an inspiration. Art historians cite the pair's shared interest in poses that favored the natural and realistic postures of man.
5. The Thinker NEARLY HAD A WARDROBE.
During the lengthy creation of The Gates of Hell, Rodin toyed with the idea of a clothed Thinker/Poet. "Thin ascetic Dante in his straight robe separated from all the rest would have been without meaning," he wrote. "Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated on a rock, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator."
6. The Thinker wasn't Rodin's only Gates of Hell spin-off.
7. The Thinker went solo in 1888.
Rodin experimented with a plaster cast version of his Gates of Hell standout. Measuring around 3 feet tall, The Thinker made its individual exhibition debut, which proved popular enough to inspire Rodin to think bigger. Next he made the slightly larger-than-life version we know today. Cast in bronze, this Thinker was 6 feet tall and became the center of instant media praise.
8. THESE BIGGER sculptures marked a major comeback for Rodin.
The sculptor spent a chunk of the 1890s working on an impressionist statue Monument to Balzac. Commissioned to commemorate the 19th century French novelist Honoré de Balzac, this unusual take on a memorial statue earned critical scorn, and the commissioners, the Society of Men of Letters, threatened a lawsuit. Rodin was forced to take back the sculpture, which he housed in his home in Meudon. With the turn of the century came the rousing success of The Thinker, which made people forget his monumental misstep.
9. You can see The Thinker all over the world.
In his lifetime, Rodin made at least 10 castings of The Thinker. Upon his death in 1917, the rights to recast it were given to the nation of France. Since then, that number has grown to over 20. (The exact figure is a matter of debate.) Today, plaster and bronze versions of The Thinker can be seen in Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria, Geneva's Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, and Paris' Musée Rodin, just to name a few. There's also one that marks Rodin's grave.
10. A TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION MADE SO MANY CASTINGS POSSIBLE.
Doubling the size of The Thinker for its 6-foot versions (known as monumentals) was made much easier by the invention of the Collas Machine. Invented by its namesake Achille Collas in 1836, this device allowed a sculptor to trace (for lack of a better word) their completed plaster cast while a corresponding tool would carve a replicate in clay in the exact measurements required.
11. Cleveland's Thinker was the victim of a terrorist attack.
The Thinker is traditionally displayed outdoors, and The Cleveland Museum of Art followed suit when it acquired a casting. Thus, The Thinker was defenseless in the wee hours of March 24, 1970, when unidentified bombers strapped what is suspected to have been three sticks of dynamite to its base. The explosion blew off The Thinker's feet and irreparably damaged the legs. The local police believed the Weather Underground were responsible, but the identities of the bombers have never been determined. The sculpture is still on exhibit, though it has not been restored.
12. Rodin knew the secret of The Thinker’s success.
The immense popularity of the piece has frequently been credited to the familiar emotion it projects, of being lost deep in thought, frozen from action. Rodin explained, "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."