From surface to seismic: Conserving Rodin’s The Thinker in San Francisco

Elisabeth Cornu

Abstract

The San Francisco edition of The Thinker, the historic bronze sculpture by Rodin, ca. 1880, was purchased by the founder of San Francisco’s California Palace of Legion of Honor Museum directly from Rodin in 1915. After being exhibited at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition, it was put on public view in Golden Gate Park and then transferred to the above museum in 1924. It has resided in the museum’s open courtyard ever since.

The sculpture did not undergo any extensive conservation work until 1985. Conservators from the Objects Conservation Laboratory of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco enlisted University of California scientists to analyze corrosion products found on the sculpture’s surface and undertook an extensive cleaning. Treatment discussions also included Prof. Albert Elsen, eminent Rodin scholar at nearby Stanford University and conservators in charge of other Rodin collections. The Thinker then received a protective coating of wax. The surface protection layer of the sculpture has been regularly cleaned and renewed.

When the California Palace of Legion of Honor was closed for extensive seismic renovation in 1991, the sculpture was lent to the MacNay Museum in Texas and to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. For The Thinker’s reinstallation in the courtyard of the newly renovated museum, the sculpture was placed on a seismically engineered pedestal and has benefited from earthquake-mitigation techniques for sculptures developed by the museum’s conservators and mountmakers.