A History of Sculpture

History of Sculpture

Sculpture has long been associated with religious life in various cultures and has long been created by human hands.

Some cultures, like Ancient Egypt and Mississippian culture, dedicated much effort to monumental sculpture. Renaissance artists Donatello Ghiberti Michelangelo produced freestanding figures which combined idealization and realism.

Early Sculpture

Humans are born into a three-dimensional world filled with forms. Through observation and practice, humans learn something about these structures and expressive properties – this understanding and sensitive response form what we know as “sense of form”, something sculpture primarily addresses.

Sculpture may be freestanding or attached to surfaces; its shapes range from free-standing statues (statues) and relief to round (statues). Materials range from classic metals, stones and ceramics, precious stones to wood and bone, terracotta to clay and wax as well as paper plastic and mud; designs range from simple idealism up to full realism with numerous variations between.

At the close of the 19th century in America, sculpture reached its zenith as an art form, reflecting its roots in Roman republican civic values and Protestant Christianity. A prime example is Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Adams Memorial (1886-91) for Marian Clover Hooper Adams; this piece blends classical tradition with Buddhist influence for an emotionally soothing yet spiritually meditative experience located at Boston Public Garden.

Classical Sculpture

Classical sculpture (often with an lower case “c”) refers to art produced during Ancient Greece and Rome as well as any Hellenized or Romanized civilizations under their rule or influence, and specifically refers to free standing sculpture and relief work featuring classical styles of realism.

By the Early Classical period, Greek sculptors had begun to break away from convention and achieve an unprecedented degree of naturalism in their sculpture. They depicted life-sized, realistic human figures that glorified their bodies; one example being Kritios Boy’s torso which shows an understanding of muscular structure while simultaneously providing a veil between art and reality with his stoic expression.

Furthermore, painting became more widespread, being used to increase statue realism through inlaid eyes, skin and clothing patterns as seen on statues such as Kritios Boy and Charioteer of Delphi. Contrapposto was also employed – the dramatic counterbalance between relaxed and tensed body parts – an element that had been characteristic of Archaic kouroi dance.

Marble was an extremely fragile material, so to prevent any possible collapse it was necessary to add support struts that buttressed arms and legs of larger statues, helping the figure stand up while also supporting its weight. While visible in Roman copies of bronzes they were typically whitewashed during Renaissance sculpture to make figures appear more lifelike and genuine.

Renaissance Sculpture

Renaissance sculptors turned back to studying human form, striving to represent it both idealized and realistically. This resulted in pioneering pieces like Donatello’s David (1430-1440), Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise for Florence Baptistry (1425) and Michelangelo’s marble Pieta (1501 – 1504).

Sculpture has long been associated with religion. In many cultures it serves as an expression of religious devotion, while until recent centuries large sculptures – often too expensive for individuals to produce – were an expression of religious faith. Some iconic images such as gold miniatures found in Egyptian temples or Greek deities have survived; however most religious sculpture is small in scale.

The Renaissance saw a revival of sculpture collecting, which Smithsonian suggests may have been done as a form of knowledge display; however, due to their systematic markings it seems more likely that such collections were intended purely for aesthetic reasons than knowledge display. Collecting sculpture has an extensive history spanning 2,000 years in Greece, China and Mesoamerica with contemporary collectors increasingly using sculpture for consumption and desire as much as painting or drawing.

Modern Sculpture

Contemporary sculpture no longer revolves around just two traditional forming processes – carving and modeling – or natural materials such as stone (particularly bronze), clay, wood, bone or ivory; instead contemporary sculptors make use of any material or technique that best serves their goals.

At the close of the 19th century, sculpture entered its modern phase thanks to Auguste Rodin, who broke away from centuries of antiquity-inspired work.

Another contributor to this transformation was the creation of new materials that opened up entirely new opportunities, such as wire as an armature for sculptures that helped hold their form during creation – this allowed sculptors to produce very large works which otherwise would have been unthinkable without these innovations.

Getsy 2004 and Read 1956 are both comprehensive surveys of modern sculpture since Rodin up until the early 1960s, emphasizing tactility as one of the key aspects. Clement Greenberg criticised Read’s emphasis on tactility when writing in New York Times Book Review in 1956; an alternative introduction, Selz 1968 may provide more specific knowledge.


Modern sculpture encompasses any object shaped into three dimensions that communicates something beyond itself. The source material for sculpture lies in nature and human culture – understanding and responding sensitively to these forms are vital to understanding sculpture.

Cubism was an art movement created and led by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso from 1907 until just before World War One, which saw their paintings breaking the traditional depiction of subjects on canvas by showing different perspectives of one object or figure, rather than depicting only a singular image from one angle.

Traditional durable sculpture was traditionally composed of metal (especially bronze), stone and clay with less expensive alternatives like wood, bone and antler also being suitable for durable art works. Since the 20th century however, sculptors have become virtually free to work with any material and process they please; classic methods for durable sculpting included carving (removing material) and modelling (adding clay to form forms). Nowadays most professional sculptors are trained as professional artists using any material available while digital forming technologies allow them to produce work rapidly.


Dada art can best be summarized through Max Ernst’s creative output – including his use of frotage (rubbings), painting, collage and mixed media assemblage. Ernst often created works which alluded to fantasy creatures such as dwellings or landscapes from medieval history or language playback as well as absurdist notions about life and language. Ernst was known to draw upon premodern traditions for inspiration when making their pieces while mass-media imagery such as television was often chosen instead of traditional materials used by art sculptors for better connecting art and life together.

Like other art movements of its time, Dada was deeply affected by World War I and its breakdown of premodern traditions. The movement opposed bourgeois convention, government authority and conventional production methods; rejecting all established verities.

Dada artists used found objects, known as readymades, to challenge bourgeois notions of art and artistic creativity. Additionally, they embraced chance as an additional creative factor and let it play an active role in their sculptural processes – for instance Berlin artist Raoul Hausmann created Mechanical Head from an object such as a wig-maker’s dummy combined with various odds and ends such as crocodile-skin wallet, ruler and the mechanism from a pocket watch in order to express what he claimed was prevalent “half mechanical” condition present within society at large.


Futurism was first popular in Italy during the 1910s, before spreading globally. The movement’s goal was to show movement as art through sculpture; its influence could be found in cubism and abstract expressionism styles of modern art as well as even leading to the development of kinetic sculpture.

Futurism artists recognized that sculpture’s unique ability to capture movement enabled them to depict everyday life dynamically in their paintings, sculptures and manifestos. Futurism artists found inspiration in chronophotography – which uses multiple frames of moving images to represent movement – for this technique as demonstrated in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on Leash or Gino Severini’s Development of Bottle in Space works by these two sculptural artists.

Futurism was also defined by unpredictable change, which was depicted by its sculptures using vague forms and emphasizing movement over other aspects. Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is an example; originally made out of plaster but cast into bronze nearly 20 years later – its vague shape allows viewers to spot human characteristics without difficulty while at the same time reflecting chaos and unpredictability in society.