Monumental casts of "The Thinker" are on display in Paris, Detroit, Kyoto, New York City, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires to name a few. A maquette version is on display at Gustavus Adolphus' museum. Auguste Rodin wanted this sort of fame, Hillstrom Museum director Don Myers says.
"It's almost like (the painting) "American Gothic." People appropriate the imagery for any number of reasons. I think he would have loved it. I think he was very happy with the fame. He wanted his works disseminated. He wanted to be known," Myers says.
Dissemination has come at some cost. Some argue that posthumous casts of Rodin's sculptures are not originals. Rodin specifically granted the French government permission to cast a limited number of each of his sculptures, including enlargements and reductions. That has encouraged wide distribution of his work.
The sculptures shown at the Hillstrom are part of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. The Cantors collected Rodin's work. But 'originality' is not an issue to Rodin scholar Ruth Butler. To her, it's over familiarity.
"Many eyes, maybe including my own, have grown tired of it," she says. "So we're not enchanted by it anymore. It's just been photographed and caricatured and reproduced so frequently that it's just old hat."
But for most Rodin's career, from the 1860s through the early 1900s, his work was so fresh it was at first rejected by the French art schools and galleries.
"The 19th century is the century of great men on pedestals. And that didn't interest him at all. Accuracy didn't interest him. He worked fast. He liked mistakes. He broke off one arm, made one arm much longer than the other. He thought that was fascinating," she says.
Think of his work like the discovery that the world was round. Before the discovery, people thought you'd fall off the edge of the earth if you sailed too far. Afterward, the discovery made so much sense it was almost forgotten how important that discovery really was. Rodin moved sculpture away from that decorative summary of someone's life into emotive and interpretive art.
Rodin was unorthodox in many ways. He left the seams from the casting process on his sculptures. No one did that. It was considered unfinished.
One of his earliest works on display at the Hilllstrom Museum is "The Mask of the Man With the Broken Nose." The man's face is aging and tortured. The broken nose distorts the symmetry of the face. This work wasn't accepted in the Paris art scene for years, Ruth Butler says.
"With "The Mask of the Man With the Broken Nose" he already showed his propensity to do what others didn't. Even though it was influenced by antiquity still it has a kind of freedom. In his own time it would have been called sloppiness," she says.
Rodin's sculptures at the Hillstrom are paired with excerpts from Rodin's letters and interviews. About that sculpture, he wrote that while some might see this face as ugly, through art it becomes beautiful.
Rodin also saw greatness in unusual places. As Myers walks among the sculptures he points to a reduction of "St. John the Baptist Preaching".
"Rodin was an artist who developed a very personal response to what he saw," Myers explains. "That was part of his work. So he sees this model, this Tuscan peasant type and he immediately thinks of St. John the Baptist. It's not that he desired to do a St. John the Baptist. This is what was inspired in him by the fellow."
As in many of his works, Rodin didn't use symbols, like a staff or hair shirt, to identify the person. He let the body speak for the characteristics attached to people like St. John or Honore de Balzac. That also allowed him to re-invent and re-purpose the sculptures.
His sculpture "the Walking Man" borrows heavily from "St. John the Baptist." "The Thinker," was originally a 21 inch statue within the "Gates of Hell" monument. "The Thinker" is Dante overlooking the Inferno.
Art moved on after Rodin's death. The emotions and figures in Rodin's sculptures were too obvious for abstract and cubist painters like Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso. Sculptors like Alexander Calder moved away from figurative work. But Rodin's popularity has returned and his influence is everywhere.