A Brief History of The Thinker at the University of Louisville
When attorney and Louisville Alderman Arthur Hopkins passed away in 1944, he left a wonderful legacy: through his will he provided funds "To acquire by purchase from the Government of France a copy of statue in bronze, in what is known as the colossal size, by Auguste Rodin of The Thinker," which was to "be given to the City of Louisville to be placed in either Central Park or Cherokee Park, the pedestal to be appropriately marked as a gift to the people of said City from the Hillman-Hopkins family." Two other statues, one of Revolutionary War hero and founder of Louisville George Rogers Clark, and another of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, were to be procured and placed in Central or Cherokee Park and near the University of Louisville School of Law, respectively.
In 1947, Mayor E. Leland Taylor appointed a Committee on Monuments to determine where the statues – along with another to honor the community's war dead – should be placed. While the committee was agreeable to placing the George Rogers Clark statue in Cherokee Park, they sought permission from the court to place The Thinker on the University of Louisville's Belknap Campus. The committee's belief was that "'the Thinker' would be much more effective if placed against a formal background, such as a library, a museum or an institution of learning, rather than in a public park." The executors of Mr. Hopkins' will, Henry B. Finn and the Citizens Fidelity Bank and Trust Co., supported this change of venue, as "the statue was a gift to the City and could go where the City desired." The Courier-Journal noted that The Thinker would "dominate the oval lawn extending westward to Third Street, and become a symbol for the entire university."
As the committee on monuments was deciding on a location, another group was searching for the physical item. Louisville’s Thinker was purchased from Henry Walters, of the Walters Art Gallery (now the Walters Art Museum) in Baltimore, Maryland, who had purchased it in 1905, following its appearance in the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The Baltimore Museum of Art also had a copy of The Thinker, which prompted the gallery to make theirs available for purchase. The city paid $22,500 for the sculpture. The Thinker that sits in front of University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Hall is, according to UofL art historian Christopher Fulton, the first large cast of the sculpture. It was made using the "lost wax" process.
The Thinker was unveiled at the University of Louisville on March 25, 1949. The covering cloth was removed by Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley and University of Louisville Public Relations Director Arthur Gunderson. Eight-year-old Nancy Speckman, Mr. Hopkins' great-niece, looked on as a representative of the family.
University of Louisville students took to the new campus resident immediately, making him a part of their protests and featuring him in their humor. On May 6, the Cardinal newspaper ran a photograph of students posing in front of a slide-rule-wielding Thinker with a sign protesting the loss of a favorite instructor. But they also immediately saw the potential for comedy in this icon, as well: on May 20, the Cardinal reviewed the entertainment offered during a cruise on the Ohio River, which included a "bang-up skit satirizing the student body, the faculty, and the Thinker." The skit's plot revolved around The Thinker tutoring a naive leprechaun. This may have been the high point of the evening: the overall review was that "the students hadn't had a spectacular time, but they had had a pretty good one." Years later, students would continue in this vein with photographs featuring The Thinker holding a roll of toilet paper.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the campus community developed an unfortunate tradition of periodically painting The Thinker. In November 1958, the Courier-Journal reported that the sculpture had been painted three times in two weeks. This spurred then-assistant professor Dario Covi to write to the Cardinal in an attempt to convince students and others of the significance of our Thinker, as well as the damage being done. In addition to defacing the sculpture, the cleaning process had removed the original patina. Despite his exhortations, the tradition resurfaced in 1960, when President Davidson reminded the campus that the sculpture had been placed at the University because the city felt that "it would be cherished and appreciated here as nowhere else in the city. Every time it is marred in any way, the University has betrayed a trust." Vice President Woodrow Strickler told the Courier-Journal that the vandalism might even lead to the removal of The Thinker from campus. Fortunately, this destructive activity did not take root as a campus tradition, although much damage was done.
In December 2011, The Thinker was removed from its spot in front of Grawemeyer Hall and conserved. Shelley Reisman Paine of Shelley Paine Conservation LLC and Andrew Lins of the Philadelphia Museum of Art cleaned the sculpture and gave it a new layered patina based on that found on other copies of the sculpture. They then added a protective layer of wax. The Thinker returned to a new pedestal in front of Grawemeyer Hall on February 18, 2012.