Rodin Exhibits Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For a creation of bronze doors called The Gates of Hell, Auguste Rodin sculpted several individual and group figures for the design. Many of these figures were later developed as independent sculptures. The Thinker, one of these individual pieces, was modeled during the early 1880’s and displayed for the first time in public in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has became one of the most famous sculptures of all time.

Summary of Event

Auguste Rodin began his art studies at the age of fourteen in Paris at the School of Decorative Arts, where he received practical rather than academic training in drawing and sculptural ornamental design. In 1863 he began work in Paris for the architectural sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887) and then worked in Brussels from 1870 to 1877. Sculpture;French Sculpture;The Thinker[Thinker] Rodin, Auguste [kw]Rodin Exhibits The Thinker (1888) [kw]Exhibits The Thinker, Rodin (1888) [kw]Thinker, Rodin Exhibits The (1888) Sculpture;French Sculpture;The Thinker[Thinker] Rodin, Auguste [g]Denmark;1888: Rodin Exhibits The Thinker[5570] [g]France;1888: Rodin Exhibits The Thinker[5570] [c]Art;1888: Rodin Exhibits The Thinker[5570] [c]Architecture;1888: Rodin Exhibits The Thinker[5570] Turquet, Edmond Dujardin-Beaumetz, Henri Charles-Estienne

Aspiring to be a sculptor, Rodin visited Italy from 1875 to 1876 to study the sculptures of Michelangelo, Donatello, and other Renaissance artists. In 1877 in Brussels, Rodin’s exhibition of a male nude, The Age of Bronze, elicited both praise and condemnation from critics. By 1880 his popularity had spread, and he gained the admiration and support of France’s undersecretary of state for fine arts, Edmond Turquet Turquet, Edmond , whose influence helped establish Rodin as an artist.

On August 16, 1880, the French government commissioned Rodin to create a large bronze portal with sculpted reliefs for the proposed Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. He was given a studio by the government and an initial sum of 8,000 francs (increased to 30,000 francs in 1888) for the project. Rodin would work on this project intermittently for the next twenty years.

Rodin’s design of The Gates of Hell was initially inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a fourteenth century epic poem about a man’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife. Rodin did hundreds of preparatory sketches, most of which related to episodes from the poem’s first part, the Inferno. Rodin’s usual method was to work from his sketches to create models (in plaster, ceramic, clay, or wax) that could then be transposed into marble or bronze. One advantage of his method was that his models, existing as separate pieces, could later be developed into sculptures that could be recast—and reduced or enlarged—from the originals multiple times. Several of the figures for the doors, which originally derive from Dante’s characters, form the basis of some of his most famous independent sculptures, such as The Kiss (Paolo and Francesca from Inferno 5), The Three Shadows (the three Florentines from Inferno 16), The Old Courtesan and The Crouching Woman (Thaïs from Inferno 18), and Ugolino and Sons (Ugolino from Inferno 33).

The most famous figure associated with The Gates of Hell is The Thinker. Although several of Rodin’s drawings depict a muscular male nude in a seated pose, one of the first drawings (c. 1880) represents Dante with his guide, Virgil, standing behind him. During his visit to Florence, Rodin might have seen the “Sasso di Dante” (Dante’s Rock) upon which Dante is believed to have sat as he meditated on his vision of the afterlife. In line with the tradition that a seated figure holding his chin represented contemplation, philosophy, or creativity, Rodin’s initial clay model of this figure represents Dante as the poet contemplating his vision. The figure, designed to protrude beyond the lintel of the panel at the top of the doors, indicated his connection to, yet detachment from, the vision that surrounds him.

Although the original inspiration for the portal was the Divine Comedy, its design evolved over time to take on new shapes and meanings. Rodin did not have a fixed design at the outset for the doors’ five rectangular grids. By 1884, he had stopped illustrating specific characters from Dante’s poem and abandoned a narrative orientation for a holistic approach to representing hell by means of multiple figures in unequal proportions and in a variety of poses. The figures would be arranged in a tumultuous, disjunctive manner. Rodin’s initial inspiration was gradually transformed into a modern depiction of hell, chaos, and the pain and suffering of human existence, as evidenced by the writhing figures in fluid motion.

The creative evolution of Rodin’s plan for the doors was paralleled by the evolution of the design and meaning of The Thinker. Rodin cast the clay model of his Dante-figure-in-bronze for a client in 1884 and titled it The Thinker for the first time. Once removed from its context as part of The Gates of Hell, the figure could assume a variety of new meanings. When a new casting was made for its initial public exhibition in 1888 in Copenhagen, Rodin named it The Poet; ensuing castings were called The Thinker-Poet (1889) and, finally, The Thinker (1896). The original version that represented a nude Dante with his famous cap was changed by 1888 to a bare-headed figure, with the neck and left shoulder reworked for a rougher appearance; its meaning was no longer tied to one poet but represented all thinkers and artists.

The sculpture was enlarged beginning in 1902 for its 1904 exhibition in a Paris salon. It was hailed as a new Hercules or a modern common-man philosopher but also reviled as an enormous brute and a gorilla. Despite the controversy, the government acquired the bronze for public display. On April 21, 1906, Henri Charles-Estienne Dujardin-Beaumetz Dujardin-Beaumetz, Henri Charles-Estienne , the undersecretary of state for fine arts, unveiled The Thinker in front of the Pantheon. Reflecting Rodin’s thinking at the time, Dujardin-Beaumetz referred to the figure as an anonymous thinker, one who represented French workers of all types. The sculpture’s final shape and meaning had become universalized. It was divested of historical or personalized reference and had become a multivalent symbol for all creators, artists, and workers.

In 1922 The Thinker was relocated to the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris, where it remains. There exist eighteen castings, which are displayed in museums worldwide. Because the French government never built the museum for which it commissioned the doors, The Gates of Hell were cast in bronze only posthumously in 1925, but their fame would be eclipsed by The Thinker, which already had established Rodin’s reputation worldwide.


The Thinker and The Gates of Hell are central pieces in any study of Rodin’s art, methodology, and influence. His unique creative process—changing, improvising, designing several versions of one piece, and being inspired by the work-in-progress itself—is clearly demonstrated in these masterpieces. With the dissemination of his works to more than seventy museums, Rodin is known for his wide variety of works, the multiple interpretations that his works allow, and the changes he brought to the world of sculpture. Sculptures that combine rough and polished stone or that lack finish on their bases, sculptures of body parts, sculpted fragments, and so forth no longer generate controversy but are now acknowledged as art as well.

By 1900, Rodin was considered the most important sculptor of his time and thought to be the only modern sculptor on a par with Michelangelo. Almost single-handedly, Rodin raised the discussion of and interest in sculpture to the level that painting, for example, had so long enjoyed. Subsequent sculptors imitated or reacted against Rodin, but he was the benchmark. The Thinker, in particular, has been studied, photographed, copied, and imitated in art, film, cartoons, and even advertisements, making it the most recognizable sculpture of the twentieth century and perhaps of all time.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butler, Ruth, ed. Rodin in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. A chronological presentation (from 1877 to 1967) of more than seventy reviews of Rodin’s work by international critics and artists, including the dedication speech in 1906 for The Thinker. Brief biographies of all the reviewers; a few black-and-white photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Rodin: The Shape of Genius. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Most important biography of Rodin, according to scholars of his work. More than two hundred black-and-white illustrations, a multilingual bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Penelope. Sculpture, 1900-1945: After Rodin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Trends in modern sculpture, with Rodin as the referential pivot point. Illustrations, annotated bibliography, art and history time lines from 1880, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elson, Albert Edward, et al. Rodin’s Art: The Rodin Collection of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. In-depth commentary on the largest collection of Rodin’s works in the United States. Extended essay on The Gates of Hell, with a section on the history of The Thinker. Includes nearly six hundred illustrations, a multilingual bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolinsky, Dorothy. The Artist and the Camera: Degas to Picasso. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Rodin’s use of, and objections to, photography in relation to sculpture; one of fourteen artists discussed. Illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernata, Kirk, et al. Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession. New York: Merrell, 2001. Four essays by different authors on Rodin’s career and major works, with the third devoted to The Gates of Hell. More than 150 illustrations and an index.

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