Sculpture, as an art form, is one of the more wide-ranging, diverse, and surprising in western art. Ranging from the monumental figurative sculptures of ancient Greece to the abstract sculptures of contemporary art, the figurines of prehistoric civilizations to the kinetic sculpture, sculpture gardens, and assemblage pieces of the twentieth century.
There’s a lot to know if you are interested, but art history has developed sculptural styles, expressive forms, and colossal variety – meaning that you are probably going to be interested in at least something.
Whether it’s the naturalistic styles of the Italian Renaissance or the found objects of modern and contemporary art, we can assure you that you’ll find something of interest.
Here, we’re going to give you the lowdown on these artworks in three dimensions. We’re going to give you the history of this form – from antiquity to modern art. We’ll show you some of the masterpieces of the medium – and the sculpture artists responsible for them.
And, of course, we’ll let you know the places to see the best works across the world – both the public art in the streets and squares and those locked up in a museum of art.
So, strap in and get comfortable, because, as we said, there’s a lot to know.
The history of sculpture, as far we know, started in the Upper Paleolithic, with a little figurative sculpture known as the Löwenmensch. It’s thought to be forty thousand years old.
From this Paleolithic figure found in a German cave – through the statues of Mesopotamia, the Hellenistic sculptures and Roman art, through the Romanesque and Gothic reliefs and architectural sculpture – to the nineteenth century, sculpture was dominated by a number of themes.
Primary among these were religion, spirituality, and ritual. Some of the most famous images from the art world – the Great Sphinx of Ancient Egypt, the statues of deities from Greek and Roman sculpture, the carvings and reliefs from Romanesque and Gothic art, like Chartres Cathedral – are all essentially religious icons. They were merely commissioned by people with money (i.e. the Church) and created by artists.
It wasn’t until the High Renaissance, really, that the connection between the art of sculpture and religion was broken. Whilst sculptors like Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci used religious imagery, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, sculpture became more concerned with anatomically accurate and naturalistic representations.
And this shift changed the history of sculpture. Through Baroque and Rococo, through neoclassicism and up to the modernism, sculpture was about rendering form accurately with a representational eye.
Whilst Auguste Rodin was the hugely influential sculpture artist that triggered the turn to modern sculpture, Constantin Brancusi was the figure that gave the art form the inspiration it needed to move away from the representational form.
His abstract sculpture really paved the way for contemporary sculpture, by reminding people that painting and sculpture did not need to be representational at all.
Learn more about the history of sculpture!
People are often interested in hearing about the most important, influential, and famous sculptors around. And honestly, there are a lot of them.
However, the important thing to remember is that, as any art historian will tell you, for most of the history of art, we weren’t so focused on the names of painters, sculptors, and writers as we are now.
The earliest known sculpture from the ancient world – from the classical period but also from the ancient civilizations preceding this – art was not considered so much of a personal, individualistic mode of expression. Rather, it was something more of a social enterprise, a dedicative activity.
Consequently, some of the most famous sculptures we have – chessmen made of mammoth ivory, ancient art from Mesopotamia, the high relief found on old cathedrals – these are unattributed to any individual. The ‘famous sculptor’ is a category that is necessarily going to miss people out.
Again, it wasn’t really until the Renaissance that sculpture, as for the rest of the visual arts, came to be considered through the lenses of individual names. Names like Benvenuto Cellini, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, these came to be associated with some of the most beautiful pieces of art sculpture ever made.
However, even these dudes didn’t work alone. In their respective sculpture workshop, they had many assistants, students, and observers. And so, even at this point, sculpture was always a collaborative task.
Of course, the history of sculpture has remembered only these names – just as it has remembered the names of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Antonio Canova, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Marcel Duchamp, and others.
It was the vision of these people that was so influential. However, to limit the history of the art to famous names does a disservice to all the others who contributed to its progress.
Read more about the famous names in the history of sculpture.
The Statue of Liberty is one of the world’s most recognisable public artworks.
And if that’s the most famous names in sculpture, which are the most famous sculptures themselves?
Well, we suppose what it is you mean by sculpture! (It’s never easy, is it?) Because, as we have alluded to above, sculpture is not just an art, simply, like a novel. Rather more like painting, sculpture has a whole host of different functions.
Sculpture isn’t just Michelangelo’s David, or Rodin’s Thinker – each of them seeking to be art for art’s sake, a little piece of harmony and beauty.
Sculpture, more realistically, is decorative. It idealises. It is religious and ritualistic. It is bought by power and serves political ends. It shows the world who has lots and lots of money.
Sculpture represents an awful lot of different functions. And some of the most famous sculptures have little to do with art at all.
And you’ll know some of the most famous sculptures immediately. The Statue of Liberty, say. Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. Mount Rushmore, the Great Sphinx of Giza, or the Trevi Fountain.
These works, from the earliest to the most modern, are famous not because of the beauty of the art (maybe with the exception of the latter), but for the values, powers, and ideas associated to them. And so, the Statue of Liberty is known less for the intricacy of its design and more for the US idea of ‘liberty’ that it draws upon.
These, really, are the sculptures that become famous: the huge works of public art. Next to these – which are so bound up with national, economic, and familial power – the others don’t really stand much of a chance.
Which are people more likely to know? An innovative statue by Henry Moore or Rio’s famous sculpture? Constantin Brancusi’s game-changing work or a statue of Winston Churchill?
Fame isn’t everything when it comes to sculpture.
Learn more about famous sculptures here.
Mount Rushmore is one of the most famous sculptures in the world.
As in any field, there is a lot of different terminology to learn about sculpture.
How does a sculpture garden differ from a sculpture park? What is the difference between relief and sculpture in the round? What is kinetic sculpture, sound sculpture, and land art?
And, crucially, how do we differentiate between the array of different art movements and styles throughout history?
These are questions which, to answer properly, you need an in-depth knowledge of the form. Or a detailed glossary with clear explanations. This, by the way, you can find in our extended article on the different types of sculpture.
But here, let us say, with the poet, T.S. Eliot, that the history of art is a continuous tension between tradition and individual talent. If a sculptor works in a completely idiosyncratic style, nobody is really going to understand what he or she is going for. If that sculptor builds on the work of past sculptors, however, audiences will have the knowledge and reference points to navigate the different ideas and styles that the sculptor is going for.
So, different styles of sculpture, whilst they might seem miraculously new, are actually always built on previous movements and styles.
Take Michelangelo. His work is thought of as the peak of Renaissance sculpture. Yet, he was building on the ideas and techniques of Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.
The same with Rodin – another considered completely innovative. Yet, his work was a response to and development of the neoclassical and romantic styles of his day.
This is the real birth of new sculptural styles. Not just a sheer ingenuity.
The Trevi Fountain is Rome’s centrepiece.
Finally, then, let’s talk about some of the best places to find the best sculpture. All over the world, there are museums housing exquisitely beautiful objects. Of course, however, some are a little better than others.
Start with Rome and Florence. These are the homes of the Italian Renaissance – and the former also boasts being the seat of late antiquity. These Italian cities are like living museums.
Then head to New York, where the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art will blow you away with the variety of their work.
Then there’s Paris and London, the capitals of two countries whose colonial history has collected all the treasures of the world.
For more amazing locations for sculpture, read our article!