Masterpiece Among Us
For 21,500 days he has sat, thinking.
Thinking, perhaps, how he has endured season after season of cold and heat and rain.
Originally cast under the supervision of French master sculptor Auguste Rodin, the University of Louisville Thinker was intended to suggest a man contemplating the fate of humankind. But now he might be pondering his own fate.
It was in March of 1949 that the bronze-cast statue was placed upon its perch in front of what was then called the Administration Building and now is known as Grawemeyer Hall on UofL’s Belknap Campus.
While much of the rest of the campus has changed dramatically, the pastoral view of the lawn in front of The Thinker is mostly the same as it was 59 years ago. But The Thinker himself has changed.
Covered by a green crust produced by chemical reactions and natural weathering, this UofL icon is gradually being eaten away by acids. The once dark brown color, which highlighted the muscular and vascular details, is being re-etched and pockmarked by natural forces.
Ironically, it is that green crust that helps protect the sculpture, for the time being at least. In fact, that crust came in handy in the late 1950s and 1960s when enthusiastic fraternity members made it an annual ritual to defile the statue with layers of red paint and garlands of toilet paper.
Further indignities ensued when maintenance men ground off the paint with steel wool and harsh industrial solvents.
For all that, the sculpture has endured in relatively good shape.
But for perspective, consider if, say, the Mona Lisa was painted by frat boys and cleaned with steel wool. The comparison is apt because the Louisville Thinker is a far greater and more significant work of art than most people on campus—or in Louisville or outside the city—realize.
In fact, as UofL art historian Christopher Fulton has found, it is the number one Thinker. That’s right, numero uno—the very first full-sized bronze Thinker cast under Rodin’s supervision on Christmas Day 1903.
“And when you consider that The Thinker is probably the most recognizable sculpture in the world—one of the two or three most recognizable works of art in the world, up there with the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David—and that here we have the primary version,” Fulton says, “well, that’s something to crow about.”
A Victim of Success
The general lack of recognition of the importance of UofL’s Thinker is due partly to the fact that many versions of the statue reside at universities, libraries and museums around the world.
The work is, in a sense, a victim of its own success.
“There were about 20 Thinkers cast in Rodin’s own lifetime and many more after that, and you can see them everywhere,” Fulton says. “Because of that, people don’t see anything special about any one version.”
The statue’s familiar pose even became the target of laughs in the popular 1950s and 1960s college-set TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
Familiarity may not breed contempt, but maybe apathy.
Now, Fulton, who is an associate professor in fine arts, and fellow faculty members in UofL’s Department of Fine Arts are paving the way for the cleaning and restoration of the sculpture.
As part of that effort, Fulton makes Powerpoint presentations throughout the community to educate residents about the history and importance of UofL’s Thinker.
Fulton’s academic specialty is Renaissance art, and even though The Thinker was cast centuries after that era, his curiosity as an art connoisseur was piqued by the university’s version.
“I naturally became interested when I realized that just a few yards away from my office is a sculpture created by one of the greatest artists of all time.”
Rodin, as it happened, was greatly influenced by the heroic, muscular and emotive works of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo.
It was the depiction of Hell in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings and in Dante’s epic poem The Inferno that led to the creation of The Thinker.
Rodin, who lived from 1840 to 1917, was at the height of his artistic powers when he was commissioned by the French government in 1880 to create a gate for a planned museum in Paris.
Rodin created his prototype, a massive gate in plaster, called The Gates of Hell, depicting the torments of the damned. Atop it—as both a participant and observer of the anguished scene—sat a man contemplating the condemned souls below. This was the very first realization of The Thinker, known at that point as The Poet, possibly in homage to Dante.
Disappointment ensued when the artist was told the museum would not be built, and the commission for the gate was withdrawn.
But Rodin’s muse was not snuffed. He continued to refine the gate for the next 20 years. It was also during this period that he created masterpieces such as The Burghers of Calais and The Kiss.
Eventually, Rodin cast a large plaster of The Thinker, which became the basis for the first full-sized bronze casts, including the initial 1903 version that now sits at UofL. A slightly later bronze cast that now sits at the Musee Rodin in Paris is often considered the definitive version of the sculpture. Many people err in thinking the latter version was the first one.
“Many art experts I’ve contacted express surprise when they learn that our version in Louisville is, in fact, the first one made,” Fulton says.
Long before The Thinker came to Louisville, it had a previous life that spanned the first half of the 20th century.
It was displayed briefly at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair but was withdrawn by Rodin for reasons not entirely known and replaced at the exhibition by a plaster version.
A railroad baron, Henry Walters, bought the bronze in 1905 from Adrien Hébrard, the foundry owner who had cast it for Rodin, and it sat in the magnate’s Baltimore home until his 1931 death. It then went into Baltimore’s Walters Art Gallery for several years and was sold in 1948 when the city had acquired another version of The Thinker. The town wasn’t big enough for the two of them, apparently.
The purchaser was the estate of Louisville lawyer and art lover Arthur Hopkins, who had bequeathed funds to the city of Louisville to purchase the statue.
The executors of Hopkins’ estate decided to give The Thinker to UofL, whereupon the sitting president of the university, John Taylor, recommended it be placed at its present location.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
A 1972 effort to restore The Thinker never made it past the idea stage, but three years ago colleagues in UofL’s Department of Fine Arts began discussing the notion anew.
Fulton, Dario Covi and John Begley devised a preliminary plan to clean and restore the sculpture with the aid of some of the country’s leading art conservators. Covi is a fine arts emeritus professor and curator of the University Art Collection and Begley is director of UofL’s Hite Art Galleries.
Last year Andrew Lins, the world’s foremost authority on Rodin’s sculptural materials and techniques, came to campus to investigate the condition of UofL’s piece. Lins, who is chief conservator of sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has worked on restoration of the Liberty Bell as well as the bronze Thinker in Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. Prior to its 1992 revamp, that statue was in the same condition as UofL’s.
Lins performed a battery of tests, which included making molds from parts of the bronze to assess the severity of surface etching and deterioration. He also took samples to ascertain the chemistry of the patina (a colored protective layer covering the bronze), the alloy content of the bronze and the types of corrosive compounds accumulated on the surface.
His findings were a mixed bag. “On the good side,” Fulton says, “the structure of the piece seems to be well preserved, despite the discoloration and the heavy encrustations on the bronze.”
The encrustations, Fulton explains, are sulfide compounds created from the interaction of acids in rainwater with the copper compounds in the bronze. The resulting brew of chemicals will inevitably eat away the sculpture if left unchecked.
“The bad news is that some deterioration has already occurred, though fortunately there are only a few places of significant deterioration which must be repaired. That’s fortunate because the restoration cost would otherwise be much higher and the process more difficult if the deterioration were more advanced and substantial repairs had to be made.
“What’s important is to arrest the deterioration before you have a big problem. It’s like preventive medicine, finding a disease early enough for effective treatment.”
The plan, should it happen, would involve removing the sculpture from its base and shipping it to a respected conservator in Nashville who would restore it under Lins’ supervision. The whole process, from removal, restoration and reinstallation on campus would take three months, Fulton says.
“You’re dealing with a very significant work of sculpture,” he continues, “so you want it to be done in the most professional manner possible. And that’s why we’re bringing in world-class experts to work on it.
“We won’t know exactly how much repair is needed until we get the sculpture off its pedestal and look inside. After repairing areas of serious damage, the entire piece needs to be cleaned of encrusted deposits. That’s an elaborate and multifaceted process. Once cleaned, the work must be fully repatinated, since all the original patina has been lost.”
The base on which the sculpture sits also should be replaced due to green staining and generally poor condition.
Fulton says it’s premature to disclose the projected cost of the restoration, even though he has an estimate at hand. He hastens to add that the cost will escalate the longer nothing is done.
A University Symbol
Because of its significance as a work of art, Fulton sought the opinion of art experts from around the world on a key question: Once restored, should UofL’s Thinker be placed indoors or remain outside?
“The results surprised me,” Fulton says. “The majority said it should remain outside as a work of public art, to be widely appreciated and enjoyed. They liked the location of the piece and thought that it worked well in its environment.”
The environment or context in which a piece of art resides changes its meaning, and The Thinker is a perfect example, Fulton says.
Initially cast to represent a man contemplating a scene of horror, The Thinker has taken on other meanings through the years, most notably as a symbol of the value of knowledge and learning.
“Rodin was a man of the people and he wanted the statue to represent something noble about humanity,” Fulton says. “Rodin installed it in places where it would be seen in a positive light.” The artist generated controversy among the elites when he dedicated one of his Thinkers to the people of France—positioning it so it looked outward to the general populace, facing away from the Pantheon in Paris, a temple honoring the dead heroes of France.
At UofL, too, the statue has its own meanings.
“It has become the symbol of the university,” Fulton says. “It’s on all kinds of publicity; photographs are taken in front of it at graduation, commencement. It’s just a big deal for this school.
“And to have it looking good is to the advantage of the university.”
For a good overview of the methods and history of casting and sculpting in bronze, including an explanation of the “lost-wax” method used by Adrien Hébrard to cast the UofL Thinker, go to: library.thinkquest.org /23492/data/bronze.htm)