Initially entitled Dante or Poète, Le Penseur – one of Rodin's best known works – was sculpted by the artist between 1880 and 1882 for the tympanum of the celebrated Gates of Hell. The entrance to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris was intended to feature a series of figures drawn from Dante's epic poem, sculpted in bas relief. In 1888 a smaller version of the sculpture was exhibited in Copenhagen, and in 1902 a monumental version was cast, two and a half metres tall. It was displayed two years later at the 1904 Salon, and then installed in front of the Panthéon, before being moved to the Musée Rodin.
Over time the work, which shows clear signs of Michelangelo's influence, has lost its link with its original destination and has been transformed into a symbol of intellectual and creative activity. More than twenty casts exist, of various dimensions, one of which is on the artist's tomb at Meudeon; the piece in the Vatican Museums, cast posthumously, entered the collection in 1959, as part of the first nucleus of modern and contemporary works of art.