Tag Archives: Auguste Rodin

Project from Spring 2017: Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

The following post was written by Tanya Moe, a student in the “Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia and Barnard” undergraduate seminar in Spring 2017. This excerpt from her research paper discusses what is arguably Columbia’s most easily identifiable public sculpture on campus and how it came to be installed outside Philosophy Hall in 1931.

 

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker (Le Penseur)

Written by Tanya Moe; edited by Roberto C. Ferrari

 

Columbia University’s relationship with its most famous sculpture The Thinker (Le Penseur), by the artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), began in the late 1920s under the administration of Nicholas Murray Butler, who was President of Columbia for 44 years. Under Butler’s leadership the campus was expanded and enrollment increased. He elevated the school’s reputation to make it one of the leading higher-educational institutions in the world.[1] Alongside Butler’s many feats of bolstering of the university’s educational programs was the commissioning of a cast of Rodin’s Thinker.

The acquisition of the statue took about two years. The earliest letters in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library document that the process began in 1929. Butler’s decision to acquire the statue was part of a movement “to beautify and to adorn the grounds at Morningside and to give them a more attractive and impressive appearance than they now have.”[2] During discussions, two locations were suggested for The Thinker: in front of Kent Hall; or, outside Philosophy Hall. In a letter to Henry Lee Norris, the Director of Works at Columbia, Butler expressed his preference for the latter location of the two: “The effectiveness of the statue in front of the School of Mines is so fine that I should not like to have anything less good for Philosophy Hall.”[3]

The statue outside the School of Mines that Butler referred to was The Hammersmith (Le Marteleur), designed in 1884 by the Belgian artist Constantin Meunier.  Columbia’s cast was commissioned by the School of Mines (now Engineering) Class of 1889 and installed on campus in 1914 outside their building, now known as Lewisohn Hall. Meunier’s works elevate the image of the industrial worker into an icon of modernity, as demonstrated in the strong pose of Le Marteleur, making it an appropriate representation of the School of Mines and its programs in mining and engineering. The sculpture was later moved outside the new Engineering building on the northeast corner of campus.

Following the symbolic relationship between buildings and statues, it is understandable why Butler preferred the contemplative Thinker to stand outside Philosophy Hall. In a meeting of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds in 1930, Butler again put forward an argument for the statue to be placed in front of Philosophy Hall. In another letter to Norris, he wrote:

This preference rests on two considerations: first, that the statue Le Penseur is most appropriately placed in front of a building which bears the name “Philosophy,” and, second, that in that place it will balance the impressive statue “Le Marteleur” on the other side of the quadrangle in front of the School of Mines.[4]

In another letter, Butler bolstered his argument by stating further, “We should then have two of the masterpieces of the two greatest modern sculptors on our Quadrangle.”[5] Unfortunately, the lawn in front of Philosophy was already occupied by the Venetian well-head, which had been presented as a memorial of the Class of 1887. This issue was addressed with a resolution by Butler as such:

If we should put the well-head which is now in front of Philosophy at the middle point of this quadrangle, might it not serve as a motif for some architectural and landscaping development, not too costly, of a character that would make the quadrangle itself very attractive and serve as a model of what we should like to do throughout the grounds?[6]

This quadrangle was the space bounded by the Chapel on the south, Fayerweather on the east, Schermerhorn on the north, and Avery on the west. Norris (Director of Works) and William M. Kendall (an architect at the firm McKim, Mead & White) both agreed with Butler’s suggestion and the well-head was moved.

In June 1930, Butler ordered the replica of Rodin’s statue after having visited the Musée Rodin in Paris. He suggested the pedestal be shorter than the one at the museum, as it was “in [his] judgment, too high.”[7] Butler expected the statue to arrive before August 1st, but he was soon informed that “the authorities of the Rodin Museum wish Columbia University to have an entirely new copy of the statue.”[8] Thus, a new statue was cast by Alexis Rudier, from the Rudier Foundry, where many of Rodin’s bronzes were cast. This new statue delayed plans for installation by around six months, but The Thinker was eventually installed in early 1931 in front of Philosophy Hall to balance with The Hammersmith outside the School of Mines.

NOTES

[1] “Nicholas Murray Butler,” Columbia University,  http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_celebrates/remarkable_columbians/nicholas_butler.html

[2] Nicholas Murray Butler, Letter to Edward H. Kendall, Feb. 26, 1930, Nicholas Murray Butler Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University. (The letters  below come from the same archive.)

[3] Nicholas Murray Butler, Letter to Henry Lee Norris, Aug. 1, 1929.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nicholas Murray Butler, Letter to William M. Kendall, Jun. 2, 1930.

[6] Nicholas Murray Butler, Letter to Edward H. Kendall, Feb. 26, 1930.

[7] Nicholas Murray Butler, Letter to William M. Kendall, Jun. 2, 1930.

[8] Nicholas Murray Butler, Letter to Henry Lee Norris, Jul. 1, 1930.

 

Public Sculpture, November 2014

Here are a few new photos of the some of the public outdoor sculptures on the Morningside campus, taken by Art Properties student assistant Michael J. Munro (GSAPP, Historic Preservation). If you want to send us your photos and possibly see them on the blog, email us at artproperties@library.columbia.edu.

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Kees Verdake, “Tight Rope Walker,” 1973-79, Revson Plaza

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David Bakalar, “Life Force,” 1988-92, Revson Plaza

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Auguste Rodin, “The Thinker,” 1880-82, cast 1930, outside Philosophy Hall

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William Ordway Partridge, “John Howard Van Amringe,” 1920, Van Amringe Plaza

 

Conserving Jefferson, Hamilton, and the Thinker

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you are strolling around the Morningside campus this week and next week, you will notice people working in the hot sun treating three bronze sculptures: William Ordway Partridge’s two statues of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Conservation Solutions has been contracted to clean, treat, patinate, and rewax these statues and their pedestals, to freshen them up and stabilize the condition of each sculpture.

Since the statue of Jefferson outside the School of Journalism is celebrating his 100th birthday this year, this seemed like a great opportunity to give him a “facelift.” Similarly, Jefferson’s partner Hamilton, installed in 1908 outside Hamilton Hall, needed cleaning and treatment. Unfortunately, the Rodin sculpture recently had been vandalized, someone having brushed and sprayed gold paint onto parts of the statue, so it too needed treatment to remove the paint and restore the statue’s protective wax finish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe two pictures you see here show the conservators using blow torches for the application of hot wax. As noted on this blog, the care and protection of public outdoor sculpture is costly, but critical to the long life of these beautiful works of art. Stay tuned for more news about conservation and the public outdoor sculpture at Columbia, and say thank you to the staff from Conservation Solutions!

Auguste Rodin and The Thinker

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmong all the public outdoor sculptures on campus, the one probably most familiar to people is The Thinker (Le Penseur) by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Situated on the lawn outside Philosophy Hall, The Thinker is six feet tall without his base, which adds nearly another six feet to its overall height.

Rodin began his career in the mid-1870s, following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, a period in which numerous monumental sculptures began to appear throughout Paris as a form of patriotism to the newly-established Third Republic government. His Parisian artist contemporaries included the Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Although Rodin’s sculptures are figurative in nature and arguably an adaptation of classical forms, art historians see them as the beginning of a modernist sensibility toward abstraction in sculpture because of their stark hyper-realism and fragmentation of the body. The Thinker was originally designed in 1880-82 as the central figure at the top of his monumental set of doors, The Gates of Hell. The seated male nude was meant to represent Dante contemplating his journey into Hell as recounted in his epic poem The Inferno. The commission for the doors never came to fruition, and so Rodin began marketing individual sculptures from the portal as art objects unto themselves. He cast the first life-sized versions of The Thinker in 1903.

After Rodin’s death, his studio continued to produce bronze casts in his name using the sculptor’s original models. Columbia’s replica of The Thinker was commissioned in 1930 by then-President Nicholas Murray Butler from the Musée Rodin, and it was cast in bronze by Alexis Rudier, Rodin’s preferred foundry. The sculpture as it sits on the lawn outside Philosophy Hall has come to symbolize wisdom and knowledge, the importance of the thought process needed to excel in one’s academic studies.