Market Keys to Rodin’s The Thinker

[05 Jul 2022]
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, Christie's June 2022 sale

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, Christie’s June 2022 sale

“Fist pressed against his teeth, he sits lost in contemplation. His fertile thoughts slowly unfold in his imagination. He is not a dreamer; he is a creator.” (Marcel Adam, “Le Penseur”, Gil Blas, 7 July 1904, quoted by Grunfeld, chapter 8, p. 191)

A “medium” bronze cast of Rodin’s famous Thinker used to occupy a casement window in a large room of an apartment decorated by Alberto Pinto on the Quai d’Orsay over looking the Seine. In that sumptuous setting, surrounded by heavy wall hangings, The Thinker’s eyes were fixed on his thoughts and he seemed far removed from all the luxury around him. Such was the splendid setting for the “Grand Style Collection” currently being dispersed via a series of Christie’s sales in London and Paris. After the Rodin statue fetched over €10.7 million in Paris last week (30 June), we take a look at the differences in quality and prices between the various versions of this exceptionally famous sculpture by Auguste RODIN (1840-1917), one of France’s most famous sculptors.

When the Thinker was called the Poet

The Thinker sculpture has had a somewhat chaotic history, and its posterity is in itself a minor miracle. Originally a public order, in 1879 Rodin was commissioned to create the entrance door to the Museum of Decorative Arts, then under construction on the site of the future train station and Palais d’Orsay, seat of the Court of Auditors that had been burnt-out in 1871 during the Paris Commune. But… that entrance never opened because the museum was never built. Conceived from the outset as a work in bronze, the door was neither delivered to its sponsor nor cast during the lifetime of its creator. But, the work nevertheless survived through another channel as it became a sort of manifesto-repertory of ideas and forms, that Rodin enriched and developed for the rest of his life. Indeed, Rodin subsequently worked extensively on The Gates of Hell, a response to Lorenzo GHIBERTI‘s Gates of Paradise at the Saint John baptistery in Florence, illustrating scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Auguste Rodin, Porte de l'Enfer

Auguste Rodin, Gate of Hell

From the early sketches it is clear that Rodin wanted to include the figure of Dante at the top of his door. Initially titled « The Poe »t, Georges Petit decided to present the work as « The Thinker, the Poet: fragment of the Door, plaster » in the 1889 “Monet-Rodin” exhibition at his gallery in Paris (item n°27). Leaning forward to observe the torments of beings caught in the circles of Hell, we know that Rodin worked several times on the posture of his Thinker, a figure that was initially a tortured body, a damned individual sharing the same destiny as all men. The tense pose owes much to Jean-Baptiste CARPEAUX’s Ugolin (1861, musée d’Orsay, Paris). At the end of his stay in Belgium, Rodin sculpted a group of figures for the same subject from which he kept the torso that subsequently became that of The Thinker. But Rodin’s Thinker is also a creative spirit seeking to transcend human suffering through the freedom of poetic art. After Belgium, and before returning definitively to France, Rodin spent some time in Italy. He came back marked by the visual vocabulary of MICHELANGELO and in particular his seated Lorenzo de Medici sculpted for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Rodin’s final sculpture therefore combines these two tendencies: dense composition, curved back, tightened shoulders, and, at the same time, a radiant, crossed composition with the choice of the male nude accentuating the effect of a timeless symbol.

The famous Entrance can therefore presented as a whole, but several figures from it came to be exhibited individually and became autonomous works that collectors were keen to acquire: the Shadows, the Kiss, Fugit Amor… a plaster cast of The Thinker (alone) was thus cast for the first time in bronze in its original size in 1884, for the English collector Constantin Ionides, and exhibited in plaster four years later in Copenhagen. But the work’s real fame came simultaneously with the enlargement in 1902-1903 and the subsequent reduction in 1903, both executed by Henri Lebossé. Cast in bronze (lost-wax technique) then patinated by Jean Limet, the first large-scale Thinker was sent to the Universal Exhibition in Saint-Louis in 1904 where it was immediately purchased. In the wake of that success, a large plaster cast was exhibited in London and a large bronze was shown at the Salon des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The enlargement, which accentuates the monumental value of the symbol, highlights the virtuosity of the modeling in the back and the limbs. The Thinker seemed to attract almost all the attention …but it was not always positive. “He is an enormous brute, a gorilla, a caliban, stupidly obstinate, who ruminates on revenge,” wrote the journalist Gabriel Boissy in his Chronique des Livres that year. Nevertheless, the work was, on the whole, immensely successful. A large-format edition was “offered to the people of Paris” and was placed in front of the Pantheon, where it remained until 1923 (when it was transferred to the Rodin Museum). In the meantime, other copies were produced, including the one overlooking the tomb of Rodin and Rose Beuret in Meudon.

The Market and The Thinker

During Rodin’s lifetime, 17 bronze copies in the original size (aka. taille de la porte, or medium) were produced. Eugène Rudier (1879-1952) developed the foundry inherited from his father Alexis and worked with many artists. From 1902 he made bronze works for Rodin, whose notoriety was already international. But Rodin entrusted the patinas to Jean Limet, who Rudier hired after the artist’s death. Jean Limet worked with Rudier until his death in 1941, and it was Limet who supervised and patinated the 17 new, posthumous casts between 1919 and 1945 of The Thinker. Eugène Rudier left instructions to burn his archives and destroy the molds so that the activity of the company would cease upon his death. But, by that time, the Rodin Museum had become the artist’s beneficiary and the heir to the Rudier foundry, Georges, was encouraged to continue casting bronzes by Rodin. Between 1954 and 1969, nine other Thinkers came out of the Rudier foundry. So, all in all, from these three batches of casts, one during the artist’s lifetime, the other two posthumous, around forty Thinkers have been fed into the art market. Most are exhibited in prestigious museums, and only about ten of these bronzes are still in private hands, which explains the secondary market’s enthusiasm each time one of them is put up for auction.

Between 2010 and 2022, five copies of the The Thinker, (Taille de la Porte) sold at auction. The record is currently held by a Le Penseur, Taille de la Porte Dit Moyen Modèle sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2013 for over $15.2 million. Its impeccable provenance, notably from American collectors Ralph Pulitzer and William S. Paley, the fact that it was commissioned and cast during Rodin’s lifetime (in 1906) and the general popularity of the subject in the United States partly explain this superb result. The most recently sold copy was lot number 41 in the Christie’s June 30 sale of the collection “Le Grand Style: An apartment on the Quai d’Orsay designed by Alberto Pinto” in Paris. Cast in 1928, it was made as part of the first posthumous casting campaign. Carrying a low estimate of $6.2 million, this Penseur, Taille de la Porte dit « Moyen Modèle » with a beautiful dark brown patina changed hands in less than two minutes for more than $11.2 million!

Capture du 2022-07-05 10-31-11

When The Thinker multiplied

In 1982 Rodin’s work fell into the “public domain”. It is therefore particularly difficult to find one’s way among the different Thinkers in bronze, plaster or resin, of all sizes, and with prices that can vary by a factor of 100!

Bronze statues are, by definition, multiples. Sculptures cast from the same mold are deemed to be of the same level of originality. Of course, for each piece there can be quality considerations relating to factors such as the success of the cast, the patina, the history of the work, whether or not it has been placed outside, its provenance… all factors that contributes to a work’s identity. That is why the notion of ‘original’ in the world of bronze statues is somewhat equivocal. According to expert Gilles Perrault, “the classification of casts into original proofs, limited or unlimited editions, artist’s proofs, old or recent, numbered or not, signed or unsigned, bearing or not bearing a foundry seal, enlarged or reduced, etc. makes it very difficult for collectors who can easily get lost in the verbal labyrinth that exists in the bronze sculpture domain.”

Antoinette Le Normand-Romain recalls that Rodin, who had also ceded certain reproduction rights to other foundries for obvious commercial reasons (such as for Le Baiser for example), wanted to keep control of the casts of The Thinker, in its original size (i.e. taille de la porte) and the large-format casts. The forty original period casts produced during the artist’s lifetime (under his supervision) and the original casts made posthumously from the initial molds therefore count as ‘originals’. Beyond the corpus of works cast by Rodin or by the Rodin Museum – still owner of the artist’s moral rights – and whose print run is exhausted within the limits of current regulations (12 numbered copies, bearing the date of casting, the name of the founder and the © of the museum), other casts can be made, sometimes in large numbers. Like the over-molds , made from a mold taken from an authentic bronze, they must bear the inscription « reproduction » to distinguish them from « original works ».

Whatever the size, patina or material, demand for Rodin’s sculptures never seems to wane. In France, and even more so abroad where legislation around the concept of ‘original work’ is more relaxed, The Thinker retains its superb emotional charge and its aura as a major artistic status symbol.