Already in the first year of working on ‘The Qualities of a critical thinker of Hell’, Rodin modeled the central figure of this great composition: ‘The Thinker’.
As an independent work it became perhaps the best-known sculpture of all time. Seated on the tympanon of ‘The Gates of Hell’, ‘The Thinker’ watches the whole scene of the Inferno, brooding in contemplation. His athletic body is twisted in tension from his head down to his curled toes, suggesting a tough intellectual qualities of a critical thinker. While the right muscular arm supports the pensive head, the left hand is open, as if ready grasp the reality of his vision and to act. Already in 1885, Mirbeau noted that both the title and the subject of ‘The Thinker’ reminded of Michelangelo’s ‘Il Penserioso’ on the tomb of Guiliano di Medici.
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Originally, ‘The Thinker’ — exhibited in Copenhagen in 1888 as ‘The Poet’ — was to represent Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divina Commedia, who — according to a popular anecdote — also used to sit and think on a rock in Florence called Sasso di Dante, watching the Baptistry. In front of this Porte , but on a rock, Dante was to be seated in profound meditation, conceiving the plan of his poem. Behind him, there was Ugolino, Francesca, Paolo, all the characters of the Divine Comedy. But something came of this idea.
Interpreted this way, ‘The Thinker’ was detached from his personal connection with Dante and now is seen to represent the power of thought and mental creativity more generally. Plato’s ideal of the artist-philosopher: on a more abstract level, Rodin’s work associates the creative qualities of artistic genius with the ability to understand and judge society from a higher standpoint. The elevated position of ‘The Thinker’ also caused Rodin to enlarge the shoulders and arms, so that the proportions seem balanced when looking up to the figure from the ground. Later, when ‘The Thinker’ was enlarged and exhibited as a separate work, its lower placement led to an irritating impression of top-heaviness.
Still during Rodin’s life-time, several critics speculated on the question, what ‘The Thinker’ was actually thinking about. Democracy has had its heroes and its statues. But these heroes were often no more than bourgeois. Thinker and the Dilemmas of Modern Public Sculpture, Yale University Press, p. Thinker’ is the successor of the torso of the ‘Seated Ugolino’, which Rodin created during his years in Belgium.
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