This lesson is going to be a very brief introduction to the history of sculpture. There are thousands of years of amazing art historical examples of sculpture. In this lesson, we’ll only be able to give you a brief overview. Think of this as the highlights reel.
Click on any topic to go directly to that section:
Generally, we think of sculpture “in the round” or a fully three-dimensional statue. This piece of ochre, found in Blombos Cave in the Republic of South Africa shows engraving marks made by an artist—are you ready for it? 77,000 – 75,000 years ago.
While it may not be the most impressive sculpture you’ve ever seen, it’s evidence of an artistic interest in design and manipulation of objects for an aesthetic purpose. The Smithsonian states that the design on the piece may have been a way to count or store information and that the systematic pattern suggests to some researchers that the markings on the plaque represented information rather than just decoration. Still, it’s done artfully, which suggests to me that aesthetics had some influence, even if it was just for recording information.
One of the oldest sculptures discovered to date is an ivory statuette, dating approximately 30,000 BCE from a cave at Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany. Called Löwenmensch (German: lion human), it is about 12” tall and depicts a human figure with a feline face. This period of art history is referred to as the Paleolithic (or Old Stone Age) period. Since works from this era predate the invention of writing as we know it today, they are often referred to as prehistoric—literally pre-history, as history is defined through written accounts.
Another very iconic sculpture I couldn’t possibly leave out of a discussion on sculptural history is the Venus of Willendorf:Found in Austria, she is a small figurine of about 4” height carved out of limestone. The exaggeration of her anatomy suggests she may have been used as a fertility symbol. She has no facial features—only a mass of curly hair (or some researchers believe it to be a hat woven of natural materials). The exaggerated body and lack of features suggests this is not a portrait of a specific woman, but a symbol of women in general. Other figurines have been found from this same time period depicting women of slender proportions, but the meaning of both is elusive since again, they pre-date written history.
A lot of sculptures during the Paleolithic time were made from stone, clay, and bone. Sculptors back then couldn’t exactly walk to the art store and buy a chisel, so rocks were used as carving tools. With controlled movements, the artist would hit the sculpture with sharp or rough rocks to remove stone and form the sculpture.
Metal chisels and hammers replaced stone eventually and have been used in stone sculpture since. Today, pneumatic chisels are powered by air compressors, making the work much faster and easier on the sculptor’s hands.
It works like a mini jackhammer, moving back and forth quickly to remove stone.
Many of you are probably already familiar with some of the most famous pieces of Egyptian sculpture—the Great Sphinx in Egypt is a massive sandstone sculpture, measuring 65’ high and 240’ long!
The Sphinx is probably an image of the pharaoh Khafre and is part of a funerary complex for the pharaoh.
Ancient Egyptian sculptors created images of the deceased out of wood, clay and other materials, although stone was the primary medium for funerary statuary. This sculpture of Khafre shows the pharaoh sitting rigidly, with an idealized, flawless body and perfect face, regardless of his actual age or appearance. This and all other generalized representations of pharaohs were not intended to be true portraits, but rather to proclaim the godlike nature of Egyptian kings.
Egyptian art changed dramatically in the 14th century BCE, during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaton. This statue of the pharaoh carries a lot of art historical weight because it signals a shift from the stiff, block-like figures of the past into a softer, more realistic mode of portraiture. Artists at this time were balking tradition, much like the Impressionists did in painting during the 19th century. A lot of modern doctors have tried to diagnose Akhenaton with various illnesses to explain his curiously misshapen body. They cannot agree on a diagnosis, and their premise—that the statue is an accurate depiction of a physical deformity—is probably faulty.
The early Greeks followed the Egyptian format very closely, carving very stiff and blocky figures from stone. It wasn’t until the Early Classical period that sculptors began to break away from this rigid mode of portraiture and into more realism. The Kritios Boy (so-called because it was once thought to have been carved by the sculpture Kritios) is one of the most important works of Greek sculpture. No longer standing with both feet facing forward (a very unnatural way to stand), the figure is now seen in a more relaxed and realistic position, with his weight resting on one leg and the other is bent. This position is called contrapposto—Italian for “counterpose.”This type of sculpture is continued and perfected by probably the most copied Greek statue—Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) by Polykleitos. The original is lost, but here is a copy: The Doryphoros is the embodiment of Polykleito’s vision of the ideal male nude. His contrapposto is more pronounced than with Kritios boy, but Polykleitos wasn’t satisfied with just that. He wanted to make the perfect statue. While it looks totally natural, the truth is, there’s a lot of thought that went into this. The way Polykleitos has counterbalanced the whole statue is genius—the rigid supporting leg is echoed in the straight, hanging arm, providing the figure’s right side with the columnar stability needed to anchor the left side’s dynamically flexed limbs. He is asymmetrical, adding harmony to the work and giving life to the sculpture.
The Rise Of Christianity
Prior to 325 CE, the majority of the Roman Empire (which encompassed a massive area—all of Western Europe, parts of Northern Africa, modern day Turkey, Syria, and Great Britain) was Pagan. Sculptures were made to honor the Gods, as funerary items, display the perfection of the nude body, and as political propaganda—showing the greatness of Emperors and Pharaohs.
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. Her Roman equivalent is Venus.
In Greek mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory (Roman equivalent is Victoria).
The story of Laocoön is the subject of a tragedy by Sophocles and mentioned in other stories, notably Virgil’s Aeneid. Basically, Laocoön messed up and Greek gods Poseidon and Athena or Apollo (the stories vary).
The Emperor Constantine brought Christianity to the Roman Empire in 325 CE and it became the de facto religion. This is when we start to see a shift in the subject matter of popular sculpture. Athena is replaced with Mary and the nude warrior replaced by depictions of Christ.
This is Constantine:
A lot of the old Pagan imagery got re-branded, so where once grapes symbolized the god Bacchus, after Constantine, they became a reference to the Eucharist and the blood of Christ. Of course, political propaganda still persisted, though the imagery connected the leader to God to emphasize his (the leader’s) power and as if to say, “This leader was chosen by God.”
Fun fact: Emperor Constantine named a city after himself—Constantinople. Which is no longer called Constantinople…
Now that Constantine has brought Christianity into Europe, people need Bibles so they can study the gospels. However, not all of Europe is literate at this time, so Biblical stories had to be illustrated so that anyone could ascertain the narrative without having to actually read anything. Ivory was a prized material for its beauty and also because of its exotic origin. The elephant tusks were costly imports and only highly skilled artisans could work with it because it was so hard and of irregular shapes. In the early medieval period, ivory was frequently used for book covers, boxes, chests, and diptychs. A diptych is like a book with no pages. The outside consists of two carved ivory or wooden pieces which are hinged together to make a kind of book cover. The inside has no pages, but instead a waxed surface area for writing letters and other documents. In modern times, the term diptych also refers to two paintings intended to be hung closely together as a pair.
This type of sculpture is called relief, meaning that the scene is carved into a flat block, making the scene stand out from the background. The back side is still flat, making it a good choice for books, doors, and friezes.
Low Relief and High Relief
Low relief means that the scene or figure is carved from the flat piece but in very shallow depth. A very common example you come across every day is this guy:
High relief is when the figures or scene come off the background a lot—some pieces may even be completely detached from the background, as seen here:Another place where artists could spread the word of the gospels was in churches themselves. Church doors, like these from the Saint Michael’s church in Hildsheim, Germany, were crafted from bronze using a lost wax technique:
The lost wax technique involves the sculptor making the original sculpture or relief out of wax. Once the wax sculpture is completed, small wax sprues are attached to various points to allow for the wax to drip out when the piece is heated. It is then embedded in a resilient ceramic shell and heated to about 1700* F upside-down, allowing the wax to drip out. After that, the molten bronze is poured into the hollow ceramic shell. Once it is cooled, the ceramic shell is removed and the bronze sculpture is ready for cleaning and refinement. Watch a video on it here:
The Gothic era expanded on the religious sculptures of the early medieval period and the figures on churches became more elaborate. Prominent Biblical figures were liberated from their backgrounds and more churches were decorated in very high relief sculptures, with the figures almost in the round (i.e. free standing).
Smaller works of art were also created for the common consumer. A popular item during the Gothic era up through the 17th century was the memento mori (Latin, “remember that you will die.”). These very small, handheld objects were generally created with a portrait of the commissioner on one side and a skull on the other. While it seems morbid, the reason for these was a reminder to be a good and pious person because eventually, you would be judged and either go to Heaven or Hell.
Another popular figurine was the Virgin, often given to young girls as engagement presents. Since the Virgin represents chastity and motherhood, the figurines were probably seen as a symbol of good luck and reminder of the importance of piety.
In the Renaissance, artists started becoming more interested in reviving Classical works of art from ancient Rome and Greece, focusing more on classical myths than Biblical narratives. People during this time started questioning the medieval way of life, which frequently undermined women and taught men to be doctors, lawyers, or theologians. It was a very strict and logical way of life. Now in the 14th and 15th centuries, we start to see people—artists specifically—broadening their horizons by studying the humanities—art, writing, moral philosophy, and history (frequently including women).
If you’ve ever seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you already know the Renaissance masters—Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. Donatello was an Italian sculptor who worked in Florence in the early to mid 1400’s. His most famous patron was Cosimo de’ Medici—a man who was famous for his interest in art and encouragement of young artists.This is the first piece Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned from Donatello. At the time it was made, it was the first free standing nude sculpture since ancient times. Pretty revolutionary.
Fun fact: One of Donatello’s students was Leonardo da Vinci.
The second ninja turtle famous for his sculpting abilities is the incomparable, undisputed king of Renaissance sculpture, Michelangelo. Born in 1475, he started sculpting at an early age and one of his first pieces was this relief of the Madonna and Child, completed when he was 16:
In 1497, he was commissioned to carve a Pietà—a sculpture showing the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of her deceased son. One of Michelangelo’s most famous works, it was completed when he was only 24 years old.
This is the only work of art that Michelangelo ever signed. After it was unveiled, he overheard spectators attributing the work to other artists. Michelangelo was annoyed by this, so he snuck in to the church where it was displayed in the middle of the night and carved his name into the ribbon across the Virgin’s chest. It reads, “MICHAELANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTINUS FACIEBAT”, translating to “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this.”
Later on, he regretted his prideful outburst and never signed another sculpture in his life.
I know I said that sculptures moved away from religious themes, but the church was one of the biggest patrons of the arts. Obviously they didn’t want Pagan gods in the church, so in order for artists to make money, they had to do what the client wanted. Michelangelo did sculpt a Bacchus (Roman god of the grape harvest, wine and ecstasy) and a lot of his figures are nude, which was pretty outrageous for those days. Here’s his Bacchus:
Michelangelo spent a lot of his time in the mountains of Carrara and Pietrosanto, quarrying his own marble for his sculptures. He had to make a road in the side of the mountain to transport his marble on oxcarts. One time, a metal chain holding a large piece of marble snapped and nearly killed Michelangelo and his team.
During the Renaissance, marble was quarried by inserting metal pegs into natural cracks in the marble then pouring water onto the pegs, making them swell. Eventually the rock would break apart, liberating chunks of marble. Today, wire cables with diamond-studded collars are used and driven by high-speed electric motors.
Baroque And Rococo
Sculptors now are taking the ideas of the Renaissance artists and running wild with them. The resulting works of art are almost exclusively in the round (not relief), very dramatic and dynamic.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was pretty much the undisputed master of Baroque sculpture.Here’s a detail: Another one by Bernini: Detail:
So. Much. Drama.
Rococo sculptures were a little more polite and small, focusing on porcelain as a medium rather than marble. The Rococo era was one of wealth (think of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) and porcelain had just been imported to Europe from China. Its extreme delicacy made it a luxury item and all the wealthy aristocrats had porcelain dinner plates and figurines for their homes to show off their wealth and taste.
The 19th And 20th Centuries
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the art world was going through some massive shifts. Painters turned towards impressionism and so did sculptors. Instead of focusing on perfect anatomy, details, and story telling, they paid more attention to personal expression, stylization, and interest in surface texture.
Perhaps one of the most famous sculptors of the early 20th century is Auguste Rodin.
Notice how even though The Thinker is anatomically well rendered, the texture on the skin is a little rougher than we have previously seen in sculpture. Think about Bernini next to Rodin—very different surfaces. Rodin is really doing something very different that no one has done before by leaving this rough texture on his model.
Another artist, Edgar Degas, was primarily a painter, but he also made sculpture. This mixed media ballerina he created shocked a lot of people, and many found it awful when he originally showed it in 1881:
An armature is a structure on top of which a sculpture is built. It helps to keep the sculpture upright without any fear of it sagging or falling over. Armatures are generally made out of thick wire attached to a wooden base, though they can be made out of other materials. Depending on the material of the sculpture, the armature may be left in. If it is a clay sculpture, the armature needs to be removed before the firing process. You’ll be building an armature later in the sculpture course.
A lot of different movements happened in sculpture during the modernist movement, some of which are cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, pop art, minimalism, and futurism.
Marcel Duchamp was an artist that challenged the notion of what art really is. Duchamp was part of the Dada movement, which was born out of reaction to WWI and was basically anti-everything that art already was. They threw out reason in favor of irrationality. They were questioning the whole art world and how it ran. Probably Duchamp’s most famous (or infamous) pieces is Fountain, originally produced in 1917.Duchamp entered this piece into a show that promised to show the works of all artists who paid the fee. Duchamp paid the fee, but his piece wasn’t put on display—everyone thought it was vulgar and not art, which is pretty much exactly what he was getting at. Why are some things art and some things aren’t? Whether or not you think this is art (feel free to comment after this lesson!), it’s still a really radical and important piece of modern art that shook up the art world.
It’s signed “R. Mutt” (not “Duchamp”), and there’s a lot of speculation on why that is—too much to go into now. I’ll save it for another time.
Constantin Brâncuși was a Romanian futurist sculptor and one of his most famous pieces is Bird in Space.
Instead of sculpting an actual bird in flight, the artist was more concerned with capturing the movement of the bird. The wings have been eliminated and the body and beak elongated and stylized. There are 16 of these sculptures, with seven made of marble and the other nine of polished bronze.
Fun fact: When Brâncuși first had the work shipped to New York from Romania, U.S. Customs agents didn’t know how to tax him on the work because they didn’t consider it “art.” Art wasn’t subject to customs tax, but the agents refused to believe that it was indeed a sculpture, so they charged him 40% of the sale price, stating the piece was “manufactured metal.” It was a long legal battle and in 1928 a judge ruled in favor of Brâncuși. This was the first time in history that a court ruled non-representational sculpture to be considered art.
Pablo Picasso was primarily a painter, but he also did sculpture. He was really influential in the beginning of the 20th century because of his mixed media sculptures (kind of like Degas). He used cardboard, bike seats, plywood, tree branches—pretty much anything he could get his hands on—to make sculptures unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
Louise Nevelson is an artist from Russia, who emigrated to the US with her family in the early part of the 20th century. Her wood constructions are often very intricate, with small puzzle-like pieces painted in monochromatic black, white, or occasionally gold.
Nevelson’s work got a lot of praise when she first unveiled it—that is, until people found out she was a woman. A lot of critics were put off by the fact that a woman artist was making such large, “manly” objects. Nevelson was really influential in challenging the set notions of what women “should make” and what men “should make.”
Phew—we’re almost done! A few contemporary (meaning working today) artists then you’re off to start your sculpture lessons!
Husband and wife team, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, work together to create environmental art. They work on massive pieces that generally include wrapping something with fabric, like this island:
If you’ve ever driven on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, you’ve probably seen Claes Oldenburg’s arrow:
Richard Serra has his monumental, minimalist sculptures all over the place—you may have even seen one in your hometown. He uses giant pieces of steel and bends and places them in such a way that they don’t need to be attached to anything. They just stand on their own. Scary, right?
Studios Of Famous Sculptors
It’s always fun to have a peek inside other artists’ studios. Here are some examples of famous sculptors inside their own work spaces:
If I left out one of your favorite artists, please leave a comment in the section below. I may end up writing some blog posts about different artists just for the fun of it and to keep us inspired to work!
This is an excellent review of major pieces in art history.
Where does one learn to sculpt?