Joseph Nollekens
Biography of Anglo-Flemish Neoclassical Portrait Sculptor.

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Venus (1773)
J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
The most famous work of
neoclassical sculpture by
Joseph Nollelens.

For a guide: Neoclassical artists.

Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823)

The Anglo-Flemish neoclassical sculptor Joseph Nollekens first established himself in Rome (1762-1770), where he copied, restored, faked and dealt in antique sculpture as well as terracotta works by Renaissance masters. In this historical centre of art, Nollekens absorbed all he could from Greek sculpture, and the best of Italian Renaissance sculpture, perfecting in the process a style of neoclassical art that quickly earned him a reputation and a small fortune. He had a flair for portrait art, and on his return to England in 1770 he set up a flourishing practice, which also supplied rococo designs for garden sculpture, and funerary monuments. He is best known for the classicism of his portrait busts in plaster or marble, and the occasional mythological statue, such as Venus (1773, J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Like the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), Nollekens' leanings were towards the Baroque, as well as the antique, although later in life he preferred the style of Roman sculpture for his busts. He was one of the most successful neoclassical sculptors, and left the equivalent of £1 million in his will.

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development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

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Born in London, the son of a Flemish genre painter from Antwerp, Nollekens trained in drawing and modelling from the age of 13 under the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781), who was noted for his tomb-sculpture and portrait busts. In 1760, at the age of 23, he went to Rome, where he worked in the workshop of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, restoring and imitating ancient stone sculpture, as well as terracotta figures by Renaissance sculptors including Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Giambologna (1529-1608). In 1762 he produced a marble bas-relief, Timoclea before Alexander, which was awarded a prize of 50 guineas by the Society of Arts, and in 1768 he produced an exceptionally accurate and sensitive copy of the antique Castor and Pollux, for Lord Anson. Of his larger works from this period, the most important is Mercury and Venus chiding Cupid (1768). Overall, his years in Rome were well spent. As well as learning from the masters and perfecting his technique of marble sculpture, he also earned money as an art dealer, being especially popular with English tourists visiting Rome on the Grand Tour of Europe.



Returning to England in 1770, Nollekens quickly established a busy practice as a portraitist sculptor, specializing in marble or plaster portrait busts. In 1771 he was elected an associate member of the London Royal Academy, and in 1772 a full member. The following year he completed his famous statue of Venus (1773, J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), by which time he was the most fashionable portrait sculptor of his day. In addition to King George III, his clients included a number of major British political figures, including William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, the Duke of Bedford, Lord Canning, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Aberdeen, and Lord Liverpool, among many others. He also made busts of a number of important artists including the American portrait painter Benjamin West (1738-1820). Many of these works were influenced by Roman busts of the late Republic style.


Other Works

In addition to portrait sculptures, Nollekens completed a number of mythological marble statues, such as Bacchus, Venus taking off her Sandal, Hope leaning on an Urn, Paetus and Arria, Cupid and Psyche, and Venus anointing Herself. However, despite being his favourite type of sculpture, and although possessed of a delicate and elegant rococo manner, most of these works lack life and originality. Nollekens also executed a large amount of funerary sculpture and tomb carvings, as well as a range of outdoor designs for gardens.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to judge artists like the Anglo-Flemish sculptor Joseph Nollekens, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Nollekens made a huge amount of money from his art and lived to the grand old age of 85. Sadly, he was a notorious miser (he left £200,000 in his will) and became well known among the artist fraternity for his exceptional meanness. His eccentricity in this and other matters, was recorded in vivid detail by his pupil JT Smith (1766-1833), in the biography Nollekens and his Times (1828).

• For more about neoclassical sculpture, see: Homepage.
• For the evolution and development of the visual arts, see: History of Art.

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