Art History: A Brief History Of Sculpture

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:

Prehistoric

Egypt

Greece

The Rise Of Christianity

Early Medieval

Gothic

Renaissance

Baroque And Rococo

The 19th And 20th Centuries

Modernism

Contemporary Sculpture

Studios Of Famous Sculptors

Prehistoric

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.

Blombos Ochre Plaque, discovered 1991 by Christopher Henshilwood, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Blombos Ochre Plaque, discovered 1991 by Christopher Henshilwood, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

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.

Löwenmensch, c. 30,000 B.C.E., Germany

Löwenmensch, c. 30,000 B.C.E., Germany

Another very iconic sculpture I couldn’t possibly leave out of a discussion on sculptural history is the Venus of Willendorf:

Venus of Willendorf, Oolitic limestone, c. 28,000 B.C.E – 25,000 B.C.E., approx. 4 ¼” high. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo by Matthis Kabel.

Venus of Willendorf, Oolitic limestone, c. 28,000 B.C.E – 25,000 B.C.E., approx. 4 ¼” high. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo By User:MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

Neolithic stone chisels, 4100-2700 BCE. Photo by Bullenwächter.

Neolithic stone chisels, 4100-2700 BCE. By Bullenwächter (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Pneumatic chisel

Pneumatic chisel

It works like a mini jackhammer, moving back and forth quickly to remove stone.

 

Egypt

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!

Great Sphinx, Gizeh, Egypt, Dynasty IV, ca. 2520-2494 BCE. Sandstone, approx. 65’ high and 240’ long

Great Sphinx, Gizeh, Egypt, Dynasty IV, ca. 2520-2494 BCE. Sandstone, approx. 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.

 

Khafre, from Gizeh, Egypt, Dynasty IV, ca. 2520-2494 BCE. Diorite, approx.. 5’6” high. Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Khafre, from Gizeh, Egypt, Dynasty IV, ca. 2520-2494 BCE. Diorite, approx.. 5’6” high. Egyptian Museum, Cairo

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.

 

Akhenaton, from the temple of Aton, Karnak, Egypt, Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1353-1335 BCE. Sandstone, approx. 13’ high. Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Akhenaton, from the temple of Aton, Karnak, Egypt, Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1353-1335 BCE. Sandstone, approx. 13’ high. Egyptian Museum, Cairo

 

Greece

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.”

 Kritios Boy, from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 480 BCE. Marble, approx.. 2’ 10” high. Acropolis Museum, Athens. By User:Tetraktys (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Kritios Boy, from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 480 BCE. Marble, approx.. 2’ 10” high. Acropolis Museum, Athens. By User:Tetraktys (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), Polykleitos, Roman copy from Pompeii, Italy, after a bronze original of ca. 450-440 BCE, 6’ 11” high. Museo Nazionale, Naples. By Gautier Poupeau from Paris, France (Réplique du doryphore de Polyclète) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), Roman copy from Pompeii, Italy, after a bronze original of ca. 450-440 BCE, 6’ 11” high. Museo Nazionale, Naples. By Gautier Poupeau from Paris, France (Réplique du doryphore de Polyclète) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 Venus de Milo (Aphrodite from Melos), Parian marble, ca. 130-100 BCE. 6’7” high. Louvre Museum, Paris


Venus de Milo (Aphrodite from Melos), Parian marble, ca. 130-100 BCE. 6’7” high. Louvre Museum, Paris

Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. Her Roman equivalent is Venus.

 

Winged Nike of Samothrace, Parian marble, ca. 190 BCE. Louvre Museum, Paris

Winged Nike of Samothrace, Parian marble, ca. 190 BCE. Louvre Museum, Paris

In Greek mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory (Roman equivalent is Victoria).

 

Laocoön and his Sons, marble copy after original from ca. 200 B.C.E. 8’ high

Laocoön and his Sons, marble copy after original from ca. 200 B.C.E. 8’ high. By JuanMa (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

 

Portrait of Constantine, from the Basilica Nova, Rome, Italy, ca. 315-330 CE. Marble, approx.. 8’6” high. Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome

Portrait of Constantine, from the Basilica Nova, Rome, Italy, ca. 315-330 CE. Marble, approx.. 8’6” high. Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome

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…

 

 

Early Medieval

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.

 

Diptych with Scenes of the Nativity and Crucifixion, mid-14th century, ivory, 3 1/16” x 4 7/8”, British Museum, London

Diptych with Scenes of the Nativity and Crucifixion, mid-14th century, ivory, 3 1/16” x 4 7/8”, British Museum, London

 

Panel from an Ivory Casket: Christ Carrying the Cross, ca. 420, ivory, 3” x 3 7/8”, British Museum, London

Panel from an Ivory Casket: Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 420 C.E., ivory, 3” x 3 7/8”, British Museum, London

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.

 

Narrative Capital Frieze. Detail: Massacre of the Innocents and Flight into Egypt. Catherdral of Notre Dame, Chartes, France. 1120-1145 C.E.

Narrative Capital Frieze. Detail: Massacre of the Innocents and Flight into Egypt. Catherdral of Notre Dame, Chartes, France. 1120-1145 C.E. By Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

 

George Washington’s head is in low relief on this American quarter.

George Washington’s head is in low relief on this American quarter.

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:

 Detail from the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, devoted in 161 C.E. to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius. By MiguelHermoso (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Detail from the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, devoted in 161 C.E. to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius. By MiguelHermoso (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

 

Doors with relief panels (Genesis, left door; life of Christ, right door), commissioned by Bishop Bernward for Saint Michael’s, Hildsheim, Germany, 1015. 16’6” high. Dom-Museum, Hildsheim

Doors with relief panels (Genesis, left door; life of Christ, right door), commissioned by Bishop Bernward for Saint Michael’s, Hildsheim, Germany, 1015. 16’6” high. Dom-Museum, Hildsheim

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:

 

 

Gothic

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).

 

Depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, sculptures of Jacques de Landshut on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg, 1494-1505. Photo by Rebecca Kennison

Jacques de Landshut , Depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, sculptures on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg, 1494-1505. By Rebecca Kennison (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

memento mori head

Memento Mori

 

Memento-mori-pendant_to_rosary-1500-DIA

Memento Mori

French_-_Pendant_with_a_Monk_and_Death_-_Walters_71461

French or Flemish, probably 1575-1675.

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.

Virgin and Child, approx. 1350-1360, ivory

Virgin and Child, approx. 1350-1360, ivory

 
Renaissance

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.

David, Donatello, 1430-1432, bronze, Bargello Palace and Museum, Florence. By Rufus46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Donatello, David, 1430-1432, bronze, Bargello Palace and Museum, Florence. By Rufus46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

The Madonna of the Steps, Casa Buonarroti. Florence

The Madonna of the Steps, Casa Buonarroti. Florence

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.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pietà, 1498-1499, marble, 68.5” x 76.8”, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo by Stanislav Traykov

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pietà, 1498-1499, marble, 68.5” x 76.8”, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. By Stanislav Traykov [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

MICHAELANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTINUS FACIEBAT

MICHAELANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTINUS FACIEBAT

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:

Bacchus, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1496-1497, marble, 80” tall, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Bacchus, 1496-1497, marble, 80” tall, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

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.

Wire sawing machine being used at a rock quarry.

Wire sawing machine being used at a rock quarry.

Marble quarry

Marble quarry

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.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, marble, 1622-1625, Galleria Borghese, Rome. By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, marble, 1622-1625, Galleria Borghese, Rome. By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a detail:

By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another one by Bernini:

"Estasi di Santa Teresa" by [1] - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Estasi_di_Santa_Teresa.jpg#/media/File:Estasi_di_Santa_Teresa.jpg

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-1652, marble, life size, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. “Estasi di Santa Teresa” by [1] – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Estasi_di_Santa_Teresa.jpg#/media/File:Estasi_di_Santa_Teresa.jpg

Detail:

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647-1652, marble, life size, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. "Teresabernini" by Napoleon Vier - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Teresabernini.JPG#/media/File:Teresabernini.JPG

“Teresabernini” by Napoleon Vier – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Teresabernini.JPG#/media/File:Teresabernini.JPG

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.

Franz Anton Bustelli, Eavesdropper at the Well, 1756, porcelain. By Rufus46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Franz Anton Bustelli, Eavesdropper at the Well, 1756, porcelain. By Rufus46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anton Grassi, Family of Archduke Leopold, 1775-1780, porcelain.

Anton Grassi, Family of Archduke Leopold, 1775-1780, porcelain.

 

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.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1903, bronze, 70” x 38” x 57”, Museé Rodin, Paris. By Tammy Lo from New York, NY (The Thinker - Musée Rodin) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1903, bronze, 70” x 38” x 57”, Museé Rodin, Paris. By Tammy Lo from New York, NY (The Thinker – Musée Rodin) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Thinker (detail)

The Thinker (detail)

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:

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, Edgar Degas, bronze, partially tinted, with cotton skirt and satin hair ribbon; wood base. Edgar Degas [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, bronze, partially tinted, with cotton skirt and satin hair ribbon; wood base. Edgar Degas [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Originally, the ballerina was sculpted of wax using a lead pipe armature. The bodice, ballet slippers, and tutu are all real items of clothing, and her hair was originally a wig of horsehair. Everything except for the tutu and the ribbon in her hair were covered by wax. After Degas’ death, his siblings decided to have copies made in bronze and other mixed media, so you may see the sculpture in multiple locations.

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.

Modernism

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.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964. By Photoshop (me), original photo GNU from Gtanguy [Public domain, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964. By Photoshop (me), original photo GNU from Gtanguy [Public domain, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Bird in Space, Constantin Brâncuși, 1923 (original), polished bronze, 59 7/16” tall. Photo by Art Poskanzer via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/posk/7876811322

Constantin Brâncuși, Bird in Space, 1923 (original), polished bronze, 59 7/16” tall. Photo by Art Poskanzer via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/posk/7876811322

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.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1914, ferrous sheet metal and wire, © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York . Photo by Nika Vee via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/nika/2916465587

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1914, ferrous sheet metal and wire, © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York . Photo by Nika Vee via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/nika/2916465587

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.

Louise Nevelson, Lunar Landscape, 1959-1960, Painted wood, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchase with funds from the Ruth Carter Stevenson Acquisitions Endowment; 1999.3.A-J

Louise Nevelson, Lunar Landscape, 1959-1960, Painted wood, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchase with funds from the Ruth Carter Stevenson Acquisitions Endowment; 1999.3.A-J

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.”

 

Contemporary Sculpture

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:

Surrounded Islands, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1980-1983. Photo by Jennifer Mei via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/47357563@N06/8277468749

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, 1980-1983. Photo by Jennifer Mei via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/47357563@N06/8277468749

If you’ve ever driven on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, you’ve probably seen Claes Oldenburg’s arrow:

Claes Oldenburg, Cupid’s Span, installed 2002, stainless steel, structural carbon steel, fiber reinforced plastic, cast epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam; painted with polyester gelcoat, 64’ x 143’9” x 17’ 3/8” , Rincon Park, San Francisco. Photo by dewet via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/dewet/2246908250

Claes Oldenburg, Cupid’s Span, installed 2002, stainless steel, structural carbon steel, fiber reinforced plastic, cast epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam; painted with polyester gelcoat, 64’ x 143’9” x 17’ 3/8” , Rincon Park, San Francisco. Photo by dewet via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/dewet/2246908250

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?

Richard Serra, New Union, 2003, steel, Bilbao, Spain. By Kamahele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Serra, New Union, 2003, steel, Bilbao, Spain. By Kamahele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

Rodin in his studio

Auguste Rodin in his studio with his famous piece, The Thinker, 1904.

Auguste_Rodin_in_his_Paris_studio_1905

Calder-with-Mobile Connecticut studio 1941

Alexander Calder in his Connecticut studio, 1941. Photo by Herbert Matter, from the book Calder by Matter.

Louise Bourgeois, 1982

Louise Bourgeois, 1982. Photo by Inge Morath. Copyright © The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos.

Alexander Archipenko, 1947

Alexander Archipenko, 1947. Photo from Tretyakov Gallery Magazine.

Jun Kaneko in his Omaha, Nebraska studio/kiln, working on one of his massive dango (“dumpling”) ceramic pieces.

Jun Kaneko in his Omaha, Nebraska studio/kiln, working on one of his massive dango (“dumpling”) ceramic pieces.

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!

 

One Response
  1. November 3, 2016

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