Experience The Thinker

We’ve all seen Rodin’s figure of The Thinker in the most unfortunate circumstances: brooding in front of an open fridge, humiliated in a bright red Santa hat, poorly cartooned on a dingy office mug under an empty thought bubble, or, more common on dorm posters, crassly installed on a dreary commode. Less embarrassing but no less bizarre: blog sites tell us scientists have created a 3-D microscopic model of The Thinker that is 20 millionths of a meter high, about twice the size of a red blood cell.

Modeled in 1880, greatly enlarged and installed outside Paris’s Panthéon in 1904, The Thinker was already used in an advertisement by 1908. The visual cliché has been around so long that, unless we see the sculpture in person, it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the one work Rodin deemed so vital he asked that it be put over his grave in Meudon, France. In April visitors to the NCMA will have the unique opportunity to see both the original and the enlarged versions of this most familiar of sculptures.

Before visiting, it might help to clear away some of the commercial cobwebs by considering what Rodin originally called the sculpture: not The Thinker but The Poet, according to Curator of European Art David Steel.

In his new book Rodin: The Cantor Foundation Gift to the North Carolina Museum of Art, Steel says The Poet was likely the first sculpture Rodin created for his famous The Gates of Hell. It sits high atop these bronze doors initially inspired by scenes in Dante’s Inferno. Steel tells us Rodin first imagined the poet to be Dante himself, “thinking of the plan of his poem.”

As an editor it touched me that this famous thinker was initially a writer, a poet facing the blank page. Rodin’s poet thinks so hard about his work of art that his toes grip the rock he sits on. Hardly cerebral, the poet is visceral, grounded, and heavy: the monumental cast installed in front of the NCMA’s new West Building, a loan from the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford, weighs nearly 1,500 pounds.

I was curious what a true poet would have to say about Rodin’s original title for the sculpture, so I cold called a fine translator of Dante’s Inferno, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who remarked on the deceptive ease of creating a poem, or any work of art. Pinsky likes Rodin’s original title “as a corrective to 19th-century and older notions of Orpheus or Dionysus or wild-eyed Highlands bards with their beards sideways in the Scottish wind.”

“It’s interesting,” Pinsky said, “to think about [Rodin’s] image of [The Poet]: hunched, not dancing or lyre-strumming, muscular, not epicene, and working hard. An image of composition and inner work, not of performance.”

Rodin labored on The Gates of Hell for more than 20 years. Gradually the work strayed from the Inferno, and Rodin included stories from the Bible and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. Slowly the Poet became the Thinker. “Guided by my first inspiration,” Rodin wrote, “I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator.”

In April you can learn more about The Thinker and other figures on The Gates of Hell by visiting the NCMA’s new Rodin court and garden. After seeing these magnificent sculptures in person, pick up a copy of Steel’s book in the new Museum Store or online. Rodin: The Cantor Foundation Gift to the North Carolina Museum of Art also includes a DVD documentary on the collection, created by Emmy Award–winning producer-director Art Howard and coproducer Julie Dixon.


  1. anne th
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating. Thank you for inspiring a fresh look at a work so archetypal, so much a part of our cultural consciousness, that its literary origins have been obscured or overlooked not only by the commercialized absurdities to which you so wittily refer; the timeless and universal nature of the work as celebrating the cerebral, as offering a manifestation of man’s internal landscape, renders it subject to highly personal, even intimate interpretation. The original title, and the back-story accompanying it, puts this piece in context and helps ground the that ethereal romanticism of the notion of the Artist in the reality of its gritty, tough, toe-gripping core. Kudos to you for the wonderful and enlightening Pinsky quote.

  2. blair
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I think it is very interesting how the name changed from a do-er to a think-er. From one who acts on a thought instead of one who mealy thinks it.
    I wonder what the impact of the work is on people seeing this piece as one inspired yet not acting on this impulse. It seems to me, at least, that the change from do-er to think-er has effected the way the work is received. When it was a poet taking action on the inspiration given to him by a muse, it was doing, showing, impacting. Where as when it is only thinking the entire posses is internal.
    Just something to think about =]

  3. Liz
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Fascinating and well-written. A fresh perspective that makes us look anew at a sculpture that could be invisible in its familiarity. Thank you!

  4. annette gilson
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful meditation! I want to move to NC and live in the museum! (Anyone remember *From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler*? A love-song sung to museums everywhere. Oh, we love you, museums.

  5. Glenda
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    “visceral, grounded and heavy” –
    nice to match the physicality with Pinsky’s quote about the difference between inner work and performance.

  6. Posted March 24, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    when is the thinker going to be on display? what are the dates and times?

  7. Chad
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    The Thinker will be on view for 2 years. He’s already in place and ready to see visitors for our Grand Opening!

  8. Posted June 11, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    This sculpture reminds me of my wife, all those many years ago before we were married. She told me the sculpture reminded her of me because I was always thinking.

  9. albert J. Wilson
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    The viewer must slowly move the eye upward and feel the intensity of this work of art fiercely emenating from its core.

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  1. By Not yet open, but close! on March 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    [...] of info about the guy here: http://ncartmuseum.org/untitled/2010/03/experience-the-thinker/ [...]

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