How to Appreciate Sculpture
Art Education Series
This essay on sculpture
TYPES OF SCULPTURE
MEANING OF ART
Like painting, sculpture is first and foremost a visual art, so the more we see, the more our eyes become acquainted with the medium, and the faster our appreciation. To help you learn (or teach students) how to appreciate the wonderful plastic art of sculpture, this webpage contains explanations of most of the major schools, from the Stone Age to the present day. It includes references to the aesthetics of the movement and to important sculptors and their works, with individual explanations where appropriate. No educational article however can compare with a visit to a sculpture gallery, garden or museum, where you can walk around the exhibits and study them from different angles. So check out our list of the best art museums. After all, sculpture, unlike painting, is a three-dimensional art, and can only be appreciated properly in the flesh.
Prehistoric sculpture first appears in the Paleolithic era (up to 10,000 BCE), in the form of two primitive effigies: the basaltic figurine known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram and the quartzite figurine we know as the Venus of Tan-Tan. Both have been carbon-dated to 200,000 BCE, or earlier. Unfortunately, neither looks very lifelike.
Coinciding with the replacement of Neanderthal Man by anatomically modern humans such as Cro-Magnon Man, from 40,000 BCE onwards, art blossoms throughout Europe. The earliest lifelike sculptures are the Paleolithic ivory carvings of the Swabian Jura - featuring birds, animals, and therianthropic figures, discovered in the caves of Hohle Fels, Vogelherd, and Hohlenstein-Stadel. These simple but beautiful works date from 35,000-30,000 BCE.
At the same time, a diverse assortment of small, obese, female-shaped sculptures, known as "venus figurines" are made, which archeologists have since unearthed at Stone Age settlement sites all over Europe, from Russia to Gibraltar. Believed to have been used as fertility symbols, and carved from a variety of materials including mammoth bone, bone ash, ceramic clay, oolitic limestone, steatite, serpentine, or volcanic rock, these venus figures have been located in sites across Europe, from Russia to Spain. In addition to the extreme old age of these artifacts (the Venus of Hohle Fels [35-40,000 BCE] is the earliest ivory carving and the oldest known figurative sculpture, while the extraordinary Venus of Dolni Vestonice [26,000 BCE] is the oldest known clay sculpture in the world), the most extraordinary thing is the relative similarity of these figures.
From the Mesolithic era (c.10,000-4000 BCE), perhaps the most extraordinary piece of sculpture is the Romanian terracotta sculpture known as the Thinker of Cernavoda (c.5,000 BCE), a small figure who sits deep in thought. Highlights from the Neolithic era (c.4000-2000 BCE) include the Maikop Gold Bull (c.2500 BCE) a wonderful gold sculpture made in the North Caucasus region using the lost-Wax casting method; and the dazzling Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (c.2500 BCE), a bronze statuette from the Harappan Culture of the Indian Indus Valley Civilization.
Why did sculpture begin in the Stone
Age? Answer: a combination of factors including: social organization;
better security (more caves available); climate; greater demand for symbolic,
Greek Sculpture Made Simple spans The Archaic Period (c.750-500 BCE), The Classical Period (c.500-323 BCE), and The Hellenistic Period (c.323-100 BCE). Explaining how to evaluate Greek Sculpture would consume a whole website, so here are a few selected comments about how this unique art form developed, and what therefore to watch for.
Greek sculptors learned many of the basics during the Geometric era, although their figurative statues remained quite rigid. Figures were typically depicted in the nude (the male kouros), or semi-clothed (the female kore). During the era of Archaic sculpture, as the country opened up to influences from the Black Sea, the Levant and Egypt, they learned how to infuse their human figures with greater fluidity and a greater sense of life. In addition, they began to develop the "archaic smile", along with a more realistic articulation of the body. Then came a truly extraordinary climax.
During the fourth century BCE, the second part of the Classical era, sculptors like Praxiteles and Lysippos softened the human form, while imbuing it with an aura of nonchalant grace. The Greek Gods of mythology were humanized, while their movements and expressions were made more elegant. Composition and layout became more complex: limbs protrude into the viewer's space, sculptural groups are arranged more dynamically, while spectators are able to walk around them and obtain a variety of views.
The Hellenistic era witnessed the development of two basic styles: the "severe" style - typified by the Venus de Milo (c.100 BCE) or the more dramatic "Baroque" style, exemplified by the Pergamon Zeus Altar (c.166-56 BCE) and Laocoon and His Sons (150-50 BCE). In most cases, details were rendered with extreme realism. Sculptors from the High Renaissance era (Michelangelo) and Baroque era (Bernini) would be strongly influenced by Hellenistic Greek sculpture, as would neoclassicist art critics like the German historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68).
Greek Sculptures to Evaluate
Discobolus (c.450 BCE) Museo
Nazionale Romano, Rome. By Myron.
Roman artists remained very intimidated by their Greek counterparts, and sought to imitate them at every opportunity. Greek master craftsmen were encouraged to leave Greece and work in Rome. Even so, Roman sculpture did develop its own modes of expression. During the period 200-50 BCE, when Republican government held sway, artists developed a particularly "Roman" look in their statues and portrait busts - a look of great moral character, accompanied by a sense of wisdom and determination. During the reign of Augustus (31 BCE to 14 CE) a new form of idealisation appeared in Roman art, exemplified in the harmonious proportions of the marble relief sculptures on the Ara Pacis Augustae. The marble statue of Augustus - the Augustus Prima Porta - is another such example: the standing figure has the Greek-style contrapposto (weight-shift) pose and youthful idealism, but its armoured breastplate and cloak drapery displays a strictly Roman realism. Indeed, for the duration of the Roman empire, sculptors were torn between idealism and realism, which according to many art historians was the critical aesthetic struggle of the time. However, it's worth pointing out that by far the bulk of all sculpture produced in Ancient Rome was portrait busts of the Emperor, and that the principal rationale for almost all art was to glorify the majesty of Rome. So idealism may have been an important theoretical option, but in practice realism ruled, both in motive and medium.
Perhaps the greatest single contribution of Roman sculptors to the art of sculpture, and certainly the medium of the public monument, was the historical relief. Trajan's Column, for instance, located north of the Roman Forum, is renowned for its magnificent, detailed spiral bas relief sculpture, which winds around the shaft of the monument 23 times, narrating Emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars. The shaft itself is 30 metres tall and 4 metres wide, and is constructed from 20 massive blocks of carrara marble, each weighing 40 tons. The Arch of Titus is another wonderful example of the historical relief genre.
Finally, no appreciation of Roman sculpture would be complete without mentioning the role of Roman artists in the replication of original Greek statues, most of which have disappeared. Without these copies, Greek art would hardly have received the appreciation it deserved, and the Italian Renaissance (and thus the history of Western art along with it) would have been very different.
Roman Sculptures to Evaluate
Augustus Prima Porta (50
BCE), Marble, Vatican Museums.
Gothic art was the first style to integrate the arts of sculpture, stained glass and architecture - notably, in the great cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, Reims and Notre Dame de Paris. The solidity of the previous Romanesque art was replaced by a new focus on line, and Gothic's soaring arches and buttresses enabled the opening up of walls for unprecedently huge windows filled with beautifully translucent pictures, far surpassing anything yet seen. And indeed, the development of Gothic scupture was inextricably linked to the rise of new forms in architecture. Christian Church authorities were building lots of Gothic cathedrals, all of which needed to be decorated with appropriate Christian art. Externally, this involved sculptural reliefs and column statues; internally, it meant carved fonts, pulpits, statues, relief sculptures). Around portals and doorways, sculptors chiseled clusters of Apostles, Prophets and Saints, along with members of the Holy Family. Stylistically, figurative Gothic sculpture was softer, more realistic and overall more human than the stiff Romanesque sculpture. For example, the body of Christ over the main doorway at Chartres cathedral is incredibly supple and real, making him seem sensitive and forgiving.
The High/Late Gothic style of sculpture also began in France from where it radiated to Italy, Germany, the Low Countries and elsewhere. Using a more florid style, most Late Gothic sculptors applied themselves not to architectural sculptures but to private tombs and monuments. See for instance the range of funerary sculpture in Westminster Abbey, where monuments (in purbeck, bronze, alabaster, and freestone) are enhanced by the floors and tombs executed by Italian mosaic craftsmen recruited by King Henry III. The Late Gothic idiom was given a classical emphasis in Italy, where sculptors used Greek/Roman models, and a more emotional emphasis in Germany, where sculptors like Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider focused on the suffering of Christ rather than conventions of form (see for instance, the Rottgen Pieta, 1300, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn). In addition, it's worth noting that it was during the Gothic era that sculptors managed to achieve individual recognition.
Important Gothic sculpture can be appreciated in the cathedrals of Chartres, Notre-Dame (Paris), Reims, Amiens, Rouen, Cologne, Magdeburg, Trier, Strasbourg, Freiburg, Naumburg, Canterbury, Salisbury, Exeter, Winchester, Westminster Abbey, Santiago de Compostela, among many others.
Gothic Sculptures to Evaluate
In addition to studying the vast amount of cathedral architectural sculpture, the following items may also be appreciated.
The Last Judgment (c.1210)
South Trancept, Notre Dame (Paris).
Famous Gothic Sculptors
Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278); Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-1314); Arnolfo di Cambio (c.12401310); Giovanni di Balduccio (c.12901339); Andrea Pisano (1295-1348); Filippo Calendario (pre-1315-1355); Andre Beauneveu (c.1335-1400); Claus Sluter (c.1340-1406); Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533); Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531). For biographies of important Gothic sculptors, see: Greatest Sculptors.
Renaissance art, especially sculpture, was based on a new surge of respect for Greek art. Although consisting largely of religious works, Renaissance sculptors were greatly inspired by a strong belief in Humanism and the nobility of Man. Thus the human form, particularly the Male Nude, was a favoured subject. In order to best appreciate Italian Renaissance sculpture, however, one should be aware that many Italian artists were strongly influenced by the craftsmanship, the realism and emotionalism of Gothic works. Even so, Early Renaissance sculptors achieved notable improvements: for instance, they infused their statues with deeper emotion (see Donatello's David, 1440-3, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence) and imbued them with new energy and thought. The top five Early Renaissance sculptors to study, are Jacopo della Quercia (c.1374-1438), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Donatello (1386-1466), Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98), and Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88). In particular, look for the vigorous - even brutal nature - of Donatello's figures, which are also quite rough and inchoate. But see also: David by Donatello. See also Verrocchio's Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1495, Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice). The goldsmith-trained Pollaiuolo was heir to Donatello's wiry expressionism: see, for instance, his Heracles and Antaeus (1470, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence).
Sculpture during the High Renaissance was dominated and personnified by Michelangelo (1475-1564). According to the learned art historian Anthony Blunt, Michelangelo's figurative works such as Pieta (1497-9, St Peters Basilica, Rome), David (1501-4, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence) and Dying Slave (1513-16, Louvre) not only possessed a "superhuman quality" but also "a feeling of sombre disquiet... [reflecting] the tragedy of human destiny." Michelangelo's marble statues have a flawless beauty, reflecting his absolute technical mastery. In the medium of the heroic male nude he remains the ultimate artist. It's worth noting that by the time he reached 29 years of age, he had already created two of the greatest works in the history of sculpture. Other important stone-carvers of the High Renaissance include the Venetian Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) and the Florentine Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560). North of the Alps, important sculptors included: Hans Multscher (c.1400-67); Giorgio da Sebenico (1410-73); Michel Colombe (c.1430-1512); Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540), as well as Stoss and Riemenschneider, referred to, above. For biographies of important Renaissance sculptors, see: Greatest Sculptors.
Other Renaissance Sculptures to Evaluate
St Mark (1411) Orsanmichele,
Florence. By Donatello.
Compared to the harmony and balance of High Renaissance works, Mannerist sculpture was far more exaggerated and expressive, reflecting to some extent the uncertainty of a Europe racked by religious division. The differing artistic impulses of Mannerism are best exemplified by Giambologna (1529-1608), whose immortal work The Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-3, Piazza della Signora, Florence) has a truly awesome expressiveness; and by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) - see for instance his Perseus (1545-54, Piazza della Signora, Florence). However, compare the quiet expressiveness of the recumbent Saint Cecilia (1600, Trastevere, Rome) by Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). Other Mannerist sculptors worth studying are Juan de Juni (1507-1577) and Alonso Berruguete (c.1486-1561) who introduced Renaissance and Mannerist ideas into Spain, and Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) who did the same for France at the Fontainebleau School established under Francis I. For the best French sculptors of the period, see: Jean Goujon (c.1510-68), Germain Pilon (1529-1590), Barthelemy Prieur (1536-1611) and Adriaen de Vries (1560-1626). For biographies of important Mannerist sculptors, see: Greatest Sculptors.
Other Mannerist Sculptures to Evaluate
The Baroque era was dominated by religious art. Part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation propaganda campaign, Baroque sculpture was designed to inspire viewers with illustrations from the Catholic liturgy, and thus encourage worshippers to return to the one true Church. To best appreciate Baroque art, take a close look at the work of Bernini (1598-1680), the greatest exponent of his day. Among his finest works are The Ecstasy of St Teresa (1647-52, Capella Cornaro, Rome); Pluto and Proserpina (1621-2, Galleria Borghese, Rome); Apollo and Daphne (1622-5) Galleria Borghese, Rome; and Death of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1671-4, San Francesco a Ripa, Rome). Note how Bernini's figures and drapery seem to float in the air, and how he treats the unyielding materials of sculpture as if they were completely malleable. Other important Baroque sculptors included the more restrained Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654), favourite of Pope Innocent X, and the Flemish sculptor Francois Duquesnoy (1594-1643), whose classical works were the complete antithesis of Bernini's dynamic intensity. In France, the idiom was well represented by the Algardi-like Francois Girardon (1628-1715), the more free-flowing Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720), and the less consistent but occasionally more brilliant Pierre Puget (1620-94). In Spain, sculptors worth studying include Juan Martines Montanes (1568-1649) and Alonso Cano (Granada, 1601-67), while in Germany, take a look at works by Andreas Schluter (1664-1714).
Baroque Sculptures to Evaluate
St Sebastian (1600) San Salvatore,
Venice. Alessandro Vittoria.
Neoclassical art re-emphasized the virtues of heroicism, duty and gravitas. In order to best appreciate Neoclassicism, take note that the eminent German art historian Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) stated that it avoided extreme passions and expressiveness and was instead a model of noble restraint. Undoubtedly the greatest and most influential neoclassical sculptor was Antonio Canova (1757-1822), whose clients included Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine the Great, and Austrian Emperor Francis II. His most celebrated sculpture was probably his monumental nude statue of Napoleon (1802-6) - see either the original marble (Wellington Museum, London), or the bronze copy in the Brera, Milan. Also take a close look at Theseus and the Minotaur (1781-3, Victoria & Albert Museum, London), and his portrait Pauline Napoleon/Borghese as Venus (1807, Borghese Gallery, Rome).
Other Neoclassical sculptors worth evaluating, include: the Austrian portraitist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), noted for his caricature busts known as "Character Heads"; the French realist Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828); the light-hearted French smale-scale sculptor Clodion (1738-1814); as well as the important English artists Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823), John Flaxman (1755-1826), and Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856). Towards the end of the 18th century the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844) showed himself to be a worthy successor to Canova, in his reverence for Greek forms. For the stirrings of 3-D art in Ireland, see: Irish Sculpture: History, Sculptors.
Other Neoclassical Sculptures to Evaluate
Venus (1773) Getty Museum,
Los Angeles. Joseph Nollekens.
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