The Thinker by Auguste Rodin
When? Rodin created the original sculpture in 1881. He created the first monumental-size sculpture in 1903 and after this many casts of the sculpture have been created, even after his death in 1917.
What do you see? A sculpture of a muscular, naked man sitting on a rock. The man is in deep thought and uses his whole body to think. His head is bent forward and leans on his right hand. His wrinkled face, knitted eyebrows, swollen nostrils, compressed lips, and absent-minded gaze reinforce the idea that the man is deep in his thoughts and is completely unaware of the world around him.
The man is struggling with his thoughts with every part of his body. Almost no part of his body is relaxed. Most muscles are tense, which is clear by looking at the clenched fist, the arched back, the legs below his body, and the squeezed toes. The statue is over six feet tall making the figure larger than life. It was the intention of Rodin to put the independent sculpture on top of a pedestal such that it would make a colossal impression on the viewers.
Backstory: In 1880, Rodin received a large commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts in France to create the entrance doors for a new museum that was to be built (but never opened in the end). He was given the freedom to choose his own theme and decided on creating a scene from Dante’s book Inferno. Rodin was supposed to finish the project in five years but continued to work on the project for 37 years until his death in 1917. The doors – named The Gates of Hell – would eventually include a total of 180 different figures, and they would form the basis for many of Rodin’s most famous statues.
Rodin originally created all figures in plaster, and the doors were then to be cast in bronze. The central and the most important part Rodin created for these doors was the statue of The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) who sits right above the two doors with all the characters from the Inferno behind him. The statue was about 27 inches (70 cm) high.
Multiple versions: The statue of The Thinker can be found all around the world. Rodin created the first version of this statue in plaster in 1881. In 1903, he completed the first monumental-size version of this statue. He considered it to be a remarkable piece and wrote to the client of his first bronze casting that he would ensure that only a few copies of the statue would ever be made. However, he did not keep his word.
During Rodin’s life, already more than 20 versions of The Thinker were produced. And after his death, the right for reproduction was turned over to the Republic of France. Nowadays, more than 70 bronze and plaster versions exist and are on display in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.
Interpretation: There are various interpretations of what and who The Thinker represents. When initially creating this statue as part of The Gates of Hell, Rodin meant the figure to represent Dante pondering about the fate of the damned people entering through the Gates of Hell. This interpretation is based on Dante’s book Inferno, the first part of his trilogy known as The Divine Comedy.
When Rodin started to create independent versions, he started to consider different interpretations. Overall, he considered the statue to represent the struggle of the human mind. But he also started to see hope in it. The thoughts slowly become clear, and the man turns from a thinker, into a dreamer, and finally into a creator. Over time, other interpretations have also been given. Some consider the statue to represent Rodin himself. Others interpret the figure as Adam contemplating the sin he committed in Paradise.
Who is Rodin? François Auguste René Rodin was born in 1840 in Paris, where he died 77 years later in 1917. He was rejected three times by the leading art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts. It forced him to educate himself differently and this has contributed to his unique style. He was inspired by some of the great Renaissance sculptors like Donatello and Michelangelo.
Most of Rodin's famous sculptures were originally intended for his commission of The Gates of Hell. Over time, he realized that he could turn many elements of The Gates of Hell into separate statues and some of these statues have achieved world fame. Among them are The Three Shades and The Kiss. Many of Rodin’s statues have been cast multiple times in bronze which means that his statues have spread across the world.
Why a bronze statue? Bronze is a combination of different metals. It consists primarily of copper (typically 85-90%) and tin (typically 10-15%), but can also contain minor quantities of other metals or nonmetals. It is an attractive material for sculptors for the following reasons.
Fun fact: While The Thinker is one of the most famous statues in the world, Rodin initially named this statue “the poet.” Later it was renamed based on suggestions by foundry workers that the sculpture was quite similar to a sculpture by Michelangelo on Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. This sculpture was more popularly known as “Il Penseroso” (The Thinker), and this name was also given to Rodin’s statue. The Thinker also shows some resemblance to Ugolino and His Sons which was created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in the 1860s.
Where? Part of the Thannhauser collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
What do you see? This painting is situated in a small forest in Tahiti used to grow vanilla. The vanilla vines climb up the trees. The majority of the painting is made up by the landscape. In the bottom half of the painting, Gauguin used abstract color areas to depict the grassland. The forest in the background looks more like a tapestry.
In the right foreground, a man holding his horse can be seen. The man is only wearing black shorts. He is looking down while waiting and does not have much expression on his face. In between the trees, just left to the middle, a woman dressed in white hides in the forest. It seems that the two people have arranged a romantic meeting (a rendezvous) between them that needs to remain a secret.
Synthetism: This is an artistic style used by artists such as Gauguin and Émile Bernard. It is a combination of different approaches to painting. For example, on the one hand, the real world can be depicted in a painting, while, on the other hand, the artist’s dream world can also be depicted.
As Gauguin was an artist who mainly painted from his imagination, he combined the real world which he saw in front of him with the ideas that he had in his mind. In this painting, he combined the landscape in French Polynesia with a scene in his mind from a man with a horse that was inspired by one of the friezes of the Parthenon.
An even better example of this style is the painting Vision after a Sermon by Gauguin. In this painting, several women are leaving the church at the bottom, and they see a vision of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which was the subject of the sermon.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was born in Paris. He was a Post-Impressionist painter. He is known for his experimental use of different colors, which has had a big impact on future artists such as Picasso and Matisse.
On April 1, 1891, Gauguin left to Tahiti, which is the largest island of French Polynesia and lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His idea was to escape from the artificial life in France and to immerse in nature, live like a child would do, and focus on his art. The first painting he created on Tahiti is Hail Mary which is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the same time as the painting In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse, he also painted Haere Mai, which is also on display at the Guggenheim Museum.
Gauguin stayed in Tahiti for two years, before returning to France in August 1893. In 1895, he returned to French Polynesia where he stayed until his death. During his life, Gauguin was often struggling for enough money to be a full-time painter, but his work became very popular after his death.
Tahiti: Tahiti is an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is formed by volcanic activity and is a part of France. 70% of the total population (which is less than 200,000) consists of indigenous Tahitians. While many people speak the Tahitian language, French is the official language. The island contains a small airport but has direct flights to Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo. Vanilla is one of the important export products of Tahiti. The island contains a small museum dedicated to Gauguin, appropriately called the Paul Gauguin Museum.
Fun fact: In 1893, Gauguin returned to Paris to sell some of his paintings. During his time there he dressed in traditional Polynesian cloths and started an affair with an exotic teenager. His stay in France was not a success, and his ideas and his reputation were verbally attacked in the Mercure de France magazine by several contemporaries. Disappointed, he returned in 1895 to French Polynesia, where he could focus again on his art without much distraction from the artificial and conventional aspects of life.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Gallery 630 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown. Possibly a chamber of rhetoric or it was uncommissioned.
What do you see? In the center, a woman dressed in a colorful and carnivalesque embroidered costume raises her right hand. She wears a wreath of laurel on her head and red beads around her neck and arms. Next to her are two comical characters. Six other characters surround the three central figures.
Frans Hals painted these surrounding people very loosely. The people celebrate Shrovetide, a kind of Mardi Gras or carnival, in the days before Lent starts. To the left of the woman (from our point of view) is an older man grabbing her shoulder. He tries to say something to her. This man is called Peeckelhaering (which means pickled herring), and he can be recognized by two herrings hanging on a cord around his neck (see the two herrings next to the lower arm of the woman). Other items hanging on this cord are sausages, beans, a mussel, broken eggs, and a pig foot. In his right hand, he holds a foxtail.
On the right is a man with a red cap looking at the woman in the center. He makes a sexual gesture with his hands. The table in the foreground contains various items, including a bowl with fish, an open can, half a loaf of bread, and deflated bagpipes.
Backstory: This painting is also known as “Shrovetide Revellers.” Frans Hals probably depicts a play performed for Carnival. All actors in this play were men, and so the woman in the center is probably a man dressed up as a woman. She wears a wig and makeup. However, her hands are smaller than the hands of the men next to her. This feature either indicates that the man was built in a way that made it easy for him to dress up like a woman, or that she is a woman after all.
Hals got inspiration for this painting from the works of Flemish artists like Rubens, Jordaens, and Jan Brueghel the Elder. He had seen their works earlier in 1616 during his 3-month visit to Antwerp. He took the modern Flemish ideas of a very busy composition and colorful figures and applied these to this painting.
Hals painted the figures in the background using broad and loose brush strokes. Hals illustrates his trademark brushstrokes perfectly in the painting The Gypsy Girl in the Louvre, which he painted between 1626 and 1628.
In 1907, Merrymakers at Shrovetide was bought for 89 thousand dollars by the American art collector Benjamin Altman. He left it for the Metropolitan Museum of Art after his death in 1913.
Symbolism: The two characters next to the woman in the center are two comical characters that played roles in the Baroque theater during that day. The man on the left (from our point of view) is Peeckelhaering. In his right hand, he has a foxtail, the symbol of a fool. A string with items hangs around his neck.
The man on the right is Hans Wurst. He makes an obscene gesture with his hands to the woman. Some of the items on the table are also sexual references. For example, the deflated bagpipes are another reference to the limited sexual potential of Peeckelhaering.
What is Shrovetide? The Christian period of preparation for the six-week Lent. This period is strongly associated with Carnival. Shrovetide begins on the Septuagesima Sunday, the ninth Sunday before Easter. It lasts for 2.5 weeks and ends on Shrove Tuesday. The day after Shrove Tuesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Shrove Tuesday is a day with two different faces. Some people use this day to self-reflect and figure out what sins they regret and how they can grow spiritually. Other people celebrate this day wildly, as it is the last day on which they can indulge in food and drinks.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was a Baroque painter. He was born in Antwerp, Belgium, by the end of 1582 (or early 1583). At a young age, his family moved to Haarlem, The Netherlands, where Frans would spend the rest of his life.
During the year that Hals painted Merrymakers at Shrovetide, he also became a member of a local chamber of rhetoric called ‘De Wyngaertrancken’ (the vine tendrils). He did not participate in the performances of this chamber of rhetoric as he was a “second member,” which means that he merely admired the performances of other members. It shows his interests in depicting these plays even though his real specialty were the portraits that he painted.
Among his most famous portraits are the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art and The Laughing Cavalier in the Wallace Collection in London.
Fun fact: Hans Wurst, the man on the right of the woman (from our point of view), was a comical character in 17th-century performances. Hans Wurst means John Sausage, and he can be recognized by the sausage dangling from his cap. He waved this sausage in front of his fellow players to make fun of them. Hans Wurst makes an obscene gesture. He puts the thumb of his left hand in between the middle and ring finger of his right hand, which form a circle. This is a gesture suggesting to penetrate the woman.
Interestingly, this gesture was not visible in the painting when the Metropolitan Museum of Art received it in 1913. Only after they cleaned the painting, the gesture became visible. During this cleaning in 1951, the six figures in the background were also discovered.
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