Commenting on his famous work Le Penseur, or The Thinker, a century ago, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin described his subject in terms of its utter (masculine) physicality. “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” Rodin’s corporeal Thinker embodies the tension between thought and action, spirit and body. It reminds us that thought and knowledge are crafted not only in one’s mind but though ones actions and experiences. Moreover, one’s physical existence impacts how one interacts with the world, how this knowledge is formed, and how it becomes manifest, that is, how one displays and conveys it.
Rodin originally crafted his Thinker in 1880 as part of The Gates of Hell, a depiction of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which included another famous piece by Rodin, The Kiss. In its original context The Thinker was meant to represent Dante and so was first known as The Poet. Eventually, The Gates of Hell lost its original purpose when plans to open the Paris Museum for which it had been commissioned as a portal fell through. Shortly thereafter, Rodin cast The Thinker and The Kiss as individual pieces in the larger scale by which they were to become world-renowned. 
An iconic depiction of the human capacity to think and to know, The Thinker has been portrayed, copied, and reimagined by many other artists. We stumbled on a striking example, which we decided to use as our profile picture on social media—a detail from a 1940 New Deal poster encouraging people to use their local library. The poster attracted our attention not only because of its striking visual appearance but because it embodies an understanding of knowledge that makes it paradigmatic for the history of knowledge. The poster and its call to acquire knowledge capture some of the questions we wish to explore on this blog. What was understood as knowledge in particular historical contexts? What characteristics were attributed to it? Where was knowledge located? How did it relate to space? What were the social and material contexts of knowledge and how did these contexts shape knowledge, perceptions of it, and its broader impact?
V. Donaghue’s depiction of The Thinker underlines the physicality and masculinity of Rodin’s sculpture while adding a roughness that fitted well with its time and expected purpose. Clearly intended to gain the attention of the broader public, it might even have targeted unemployed men in particular, inviting them to pursue self-education in a public library. This poster carries the weight of the Great Depression and the promise of the New Deal.
Donaghue created his poster as part of the Illinois Works Progress Administration (WPA) Arts Project. As a major pillar of Roosevelt’s New Deal program, the WPA funded about 1.4 million public projects and employed some 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. WPA projects shaped and changed American public spaces through the construction of new buildings and the improvement of existing ones, including schools, gyms, recreational facilities, and libraries. It also funded art projects, from theater and music to writing and the visual arts.
Of course, posters were created to promote these and other public programs. The WPA Federal Arts Project Poster Divisions printed about 2 million posters based on 35,000 designs, only 2,000 of which are still known today. The Library of Congress holds the largest collection with about 900 posters. Donaghue’s depiction of Rodin’s Thinker is part of this collection, as is another poster we featured earlier this year, “For Greater Knowledge, Use Your Library More Often.” Using a word that suggests both “more” and “superior quality,” both posters call on the viewer to actively strive for “greater knowledge.” Both posters promote libraries as spaces of knowledge open to everyone. Both posters belong to the Illinois Art Projects, which emphasized the social and cultural significance of libraries on more than one occasion and repeatedly highlighted the work of the Chicago Public Library and its branches. A poster from the late 1930s promoted the Chicago Public Library Week, a forerunner of National Library Week, which was established in the 1950s.
Our profile picture for social media is thus much more than just a 1940 depiction of Rodin’s Thinker and an American interpretation of a European work of art and its message to strive for knowledge. It also embodies the history of the New Deal. It refers to the educational and artistic programs of the WPA and their broader aspiration. It represents their desire not only to provide relief for the unemployed but to rebuild a society by promoting knowledge and education. As such, the 1940 poster version of the Thinker represents the idealistic character of New Deal projects, which can overshadow a more complicated reality.
But that is the point. Knowledge and representations of knowledge have a history and, conversely, provide insights into historical contexts. As historians we benefit from scrutinizing not only what was understood as knowledge at various moments in history but also how this knowledge was formed, what expectations came with it, and how it circulated, thereby shaping and even changing the contexts in which it arose.
Kerstin von der Krone is a Research Fellow at the GHI in Washington, DC.
- Auguste Rodin in the Toronto Saturday Night, December 1, 1917, quoted in Jacques de Caso and Patricia B. Sanders, Rodin’s Sculpture: A Critical Study of the Spreckels Collection (San Francisco, 1977), 133. ↩
- Alastair Sooke, “The Shocking Story of The Kiss,” BBC, November 19, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20151119-the-shocking-story-of-the-kiss. ↩
- Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943 (Washington, DC, 1946), http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2008/20080212001fi/20080212001fi.pdf. ↩
- John Y. Cole, “Amassing American “Stuff”: The Library of Congress and the Federal Arts Projects of the 1930s,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 40, no. 4 (Fall 1983): 356–89, here 362. ↩