During the decade of 1880-1890 Rodin devoted himself to the creation of the Gates of Hell, a project that featured The Thinker as a central focus. The gates served as a vehicle for him to explore the expressive potential of the human body as no other artist had before. He sketched figural groups, then modeled them in clay. He photographed the models and continued to sketch on top of the photographs. He cut elements out, altered them, cast them in plaster, and continued to change and re-work them. As a contemporary art critic described his studio during those years, “figures were scattered all over the room, on the benches, on the shelves, on the sofa, on the chairs, on the ground. Statuettes of all dimensions are scattered, faces raised, arms twisted, legs contracted, in absolute disorder, giving the impression of a living cemetery.”
Rodin became a virtual factory. Following the tradition of nineteenth century sculpture, he employed other artists in his atelier to model and carve for him. He also employed photographers, enlargers, reducers and patinateurs. He used so many foundries, and authorized so many reproductions, that scholars have been unable to develop a complete catalogue of his work.
The dating and attribution of Rodin’s bronze casts is problematic. This is partially due to the artist himself, who had exhibited a complex range of attitudes regarding the reproduction of his work. At times he obtained contracts for unlimited editions, and other times he limited reproductions to only a few casts. He sometimes gave reproduction rights and master molds to private owners, and sometimes gave the rights to the foundry, or had the master molds destroyed. Unfortunately the most important archive containing receipts, letters, and other information is housed at the Musee Rodin, and has not been published or made available to the public.
In order for us to understand Rodin and his desire to reproduce his work, we must see him in historical context. During the nineteenth century, France had undergone tremendous political, economic and social change. It had also experienced great advances in technology that facilitated mass production. These social and technological changes allowed a new middle class to purchase high art for the first time in history. Rodin, like other contemporary French sculptors, relished this change.