Based in an article written by Kelly Richman-Abdou
Auguste Rodin is renowned for his figurative sculptures. While the artist dabbled in everything from historic busts to anatomical studies, he is most well-known for his larger-than-life depictions of full-length figures, including The Thinker, The Kiss, and The Three Shades.
While castings of these sculptures suggest they originated as stand-alone pieces, these iconic works of art were actually adapted by Rodin from a single sculpture: The Gates of Hell. Created by the artist at the turn-of-the-century, this masterpiece would go on to play a hugely significant role in the artist’s career, life, and legacy.
In 1880, Rodin began working on The Gates of Hell, a colossal double door sculpture portraying a narrative from Dante’s Inferno. Created over the span of 37 years, the piece features 180 figures and stands at a towering 20 feet
The door was created as an entrance into a planned (yet never realized) Decorative Arts Museum in Paris, France. Conceptually, it was inspired by the first part of The Divine Comedy, an epic poem from the 14th century. Aesthetically, it was influenced by Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise—a pair of gilded bronze doors featuring relief sculptures of Biblical scenes—as well as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Rodin worked on the piece from 1880 until his death in 1917. During this time, he constantly re-worked his design, even starting over from scratch at one point. However, citing his “50 years of artisanship and experience,” he was confident in his plans. Unfortunately, he never saw his plaster model—located in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay—cast in bronze.
Several figures found in The Gates of Hell were adapted as individual sculptures by Rodin. These include: The Thinker, The Kiss, and The Three Shades
Designed in 1880, Le Penseur or The Thinker is one of the most famous sculptures in the world. Though initially imagined as a subject of The Gates of Hell, the pensive figure took on a life its own when Rodin opted to cast a larger-than-life bronze version in 1904.
Seated on a rock with his chin resting on his closed fist, the nude figure is depicted deep in the thought. Due to his contemplative demeanor, The Thinker is often viewed as an embodiment of philosophy—though the figure was originally referred to by Rodin as a poet. Due to its likeness to Il Penseroso (The Thinker)—an Italian Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo—however, the sculpture became known as The Thinker.
Furthermore, while the reason behind the figure’s nudity is unclear, art historians believe that Rodin looked to Michelangelo’s unclothed sculptures—including his iconic David statue—for inspiration. Rodin was interested in the Renaissance artist‘s knowledge of anatomy and approach to the human figure, which helped shape his own practice. “Michelangelo revealed me to myself, revealed to me the truth of forms,” he explained. “I went to Florence to find what I possessed in Paris and elsewhere, but it is he who taught me this.”
Though the first large-scale version of The Thinker is located in Paris’ Rodin Museum, 27 other monumental castings can be found in fine art museums, sculpture gardens, and other world-class collections. In addition to these full-sized replicas, many smaller castings—rendered in bronze, plaster, and other mediums—exist throughout the world
Le Baiser, or The Kiss, was created between 1888 and 1898. With such a straightforward title, many people assume it is a simple study love between two unknown figures. However, the piece was actually originally titled Francesca da Rimini, named after the real-life 13th-century noblewoman and subject of the sculpture.
Francesca da Rimini is famous for the affair that she had with her brother-in-law, Paolo Malatesta. The two fell in love and were eventually murdered by Da Rimini’s infuriated husband.
The story of Da Rimini and Malatesta was featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy, making it a perfect fit for the Gates of Hell. Rodin, however, viewed the sensual sculpture as little more than “a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula,” and removed it from his design. The pair was replaced with another couple and adapted as free-standing sculptures.
Like The Thinker and The Kiss, The Three Shades sculpture began as a detail on The Gates of Hell. Intended to depict the souls of the damned from Dante’s poem, the piece features three frightening figures. While, at first glance, the sculpture appears to comprise a trio of unique individuals, closer inspection reveals that they are actually identical to one another. Rodin simply varied the orientations of the figures, giving onlookers different views of the same model.
Dramatically slumped over and seemingly sickly, the “shades” point downward; this gesture references their role in Dante’s tale, as they draw attention to an inscription with a particularly foreboding message: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Rodin had originally topped his Infero-inspired portal with The Three Shades, enabling them to welcome—and warn—curious observers