Gordon Adams - A brief history of European sculpture


Galleries: Stone

From Classical Greek to the 20th.C

Modernist sculpture in the 20th.C

Contemporary sculpture, and the future?

History of European Sculpture

This is a brief guide to the significant points in the development of European sculpture up to the 20th.C.
If any of the sections inspire you to look deeper, then go to your library or bookshop - there are many good specialist books on everything pointed at here.

If you're fond of looking things up on the web, then beware... I would guess that 20% of pictures found on Pinterest are credited to the wrong artist. These mistakes can happen on any website where Googlers can "post" images... eg.Facebook is also full of tosh.
Prehistoric sculpture
"Prehistoric art" is the art created by pre-literate cultures continuing until that culture develops writing, and starts recording historical events. At this point "ancient" art begins. The dates for these terms varies greatly between different parts of the world.

The earliest piece of figurative sculpture is the Venus of Hohle Fels which was found in Germany, carved out of mammoth ivory 35,000 years ago. The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, found in Czechoslovakia is the oldest ceramic piece, made of clay and fired at a low temperature 29,000 years ago. The most famous Ice Age piece is the Willendorf Venus, found in Austria, made of limestone, 25,000 years ago.

  Vestonice, and Willendorf Venuses
The art of Mesopotamia reaches from the early hunter-gatherer societies of the 10th millenium BC to the Bronze age cultures of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires.
Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia brought significant cultural developments. Their art rivalled that of ancient Egypt as the most sophisticated in Eurasia from the 4th millenium BC.
Favourite subjects include deities, alone or with worshippers, animals in various types of scenes: repeated in rows, alone, or fighting each other or humans.
There are a number of figures of large-eyed priests and worshippers, mostly in alabaster and up to a foot high. Animals are often shown as representing gods.

  Mesopotamia - Worshipper, and Gudea
Ancient Egyptian sculpture was produced in the Nile Valley from 3,000 BC to 100 AD. Most of the surviving art comes from tombs and temples, hence the emphasis on life after death. Symbolism is all-pervasive, and conventions were strictly followed as to how each God could be represented, eg. Anubis was always shown with a jackal's head, while Sobek had a crocodile head. Because of these conventions the appearance of statues changed very little over the 3,000 years.
Figures are carved in totally rigid, frontal poses with legs parted as if walking. Cats were also popular subjects, posed as if they were stuffed. Interesting, but hardly "art". But, their friezes were innovative - sunken reliefs which cast dramatic shadows in bright sunlight.
Cutting was done done with copper and bronze tools, and sand was used as an abrasive. They had plenty of that.

  Egypt - Mycerinus and his Queen
Greek sculpture
Geometric period 900-700 BC.
The earliest Greek sculpture was mostly in wood, none of which has survived. Later they used terracotta and ivory, and bronzes were cast using the lost wax method introduced from Syria. Typical of this era is the Karditsa Warrior.

The Archaic period 660-580 BC.
The Greeks began to carve in stone, inspired by the sculpture of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Poses were based on the Egyptian frontal poses, but these figures were carved with the creepy "archaic smile", to give them a human look. Most carvings were of the Kouros (nude male) and the Kore (clothed female), both of which had very generalised features - no attempt at realism yet.
The Kouros were always depictions of young men, even when placed on the graves of elderly citizens. Female nudity was still taboo, but they developed important new techniques to represent drapery.

  Karditsa Warrior, and a Kouros
The Classical period 480-323 BC.
This period saw a revolution in sculpture, associated with the introduction of democracy. There was a dramtic increase in the technical skill of sculptors in depicting realistic human forms. Poses became more naturalistic.
This was the start of individual sculptors being credited for their work: Phidias oversaw the building of the Parthenon. Praxiteles created the Aphodite of Knidos, the first greek sculpture of a nude female. This statue ended the taboo and started the genre of the female nude. Polykleitos developed a set of idealised proportions for the human form, he started the "8-heads" rule that is still taught today.

  Aphrodite Knidus, and Discobolus
Hellenistic period 323-31 BC.
This period runs from the death of Alexander the Great to the death Cleopatra. Hellenistic sculptors put naturalism above classical idealism. Sculptors no longer felt obliged to depict people as ideals of beauty or physical perfection. Statues were made in more expressive and animated poses, showing more emotion, and were designed to be viewed from all angles. The female nude is now a popular theme, often depicting Aphrodite/Venus being suprised getting out of a bath - there are so many variations on this theme that they are given their own sub-genre "Venus Pudica".
The main theme though is still the male nude - Gods and Heroes shown with perfect athletic bodies. The demand for statues in Hellenistic cities turned sculpture into an industry, with consequent standardisation and some lowering of quality. Most original Greek sculpture that has survived is from this period - nearly all the Classical period sculptures we know are actually Roman copies.
This period also saw the first written works of art history.

  Venus of Arles, and Laocoon and his sons
Roman sculpture
The Roman Empire lasted until the 1400's but most of the important Roman sculpture was produced in the period 100 BC to 200 AD.
Appreciation of Roman sculpture is complicated by its relationship to Greek sculpture. Many original Greek statues were lost, melted down or otherwise destroyed and are only known to us through later Roman copies. The Romans loved Greek sculpture and even set up a school in Rome to teach romans how to copy greek statues. They didn't add many ideas of their own but produced copies of the Greek originals that were often technically better. They preferred to carve historical works as friezes rather than compete with the free-standing sculpture of the Greeks.

Portraiture is a dominant genre of Roman sculpture, and their innovation was to carve "warts and all", in contrast to the Greeks who "idealised" all their figures.

  Emperor Augustus, and a copy of the greek Aphrodite Kallipygos (
Byzantine Art - When Sculpture nearly died
Byzantine art refers to the art of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire emerged from Rome's decline and lasted until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Byzantine art abandonded classical ideas of representing reality in favour of an abstracted, symbolic approach. Their subject matter was mostly Christian, especially the "Madonna and child", and these "Icons" had more to do with worship than art for art's sake.
Sculpture fared particularly badly, and nothing of artistic significance was made in over 1,000 years. Their limit was small scale ivory carvings of religious figurines.

Losses of Classic art
To make matters worse, two periods of Iconoclasm (religious zeal) in 787 and 814 AD saw the widespread destruction of much Classical art. Then, the infamous Sack of Constantinople in 1204 saw the Crusaders loot and vandalise the capital city and many Greek and Roman art works were stolen or destroyed. Bronze sculptures were melted down for their scrap metal value. These were truly the "Dark Ages".

  Madonna and child (what else)
The Renaissance - Sculpture is reborn
The Renaissance was a cultural re-awakening starting in Italy in 1400 AD. Scholars became interested in the classical culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and studied texts on philosophy, poetry, science and the arts.
The 1st awakening for sculpture actually started in the 13th.C when Pisa sculptor Nicola Pisano started to be influenced by Roman sarcophagi, then his son Giovanni Pisano continued his work. However, the Renaissance proper was kick-started in 1401 by a competition to sculpt a set of bronze doors for Florence cathedral. This brought sculptors Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello to fame. Donatello had been Ghiberti's assistant but soon became THE man of the early Renaissance. Sculpture had returned to the Hellenistic style of very life-like portrayals of nude mythological heroes in dramatic poses.
The later Renaissance had many skilled sculptors such as Bardinelli, Cellini, and Giambologna, but they were overshadowed by Michelangelo, who was considered one of the greatest artists of all time, and had an unparalleled influence on the development of western art. His "David" is one the most famous and admired sculptures ever, despite the incongruous size of David's right hand in relation to the family jewels. "Hung like a Gorilla" is the phrase that comes to mind.

  Michelangelo and Giambologna
After The Renaissance
Mannerist sculptors reacted to the idealised naturalism of the High Renaissance by developing an elegancant and arty style where their figures had strangely elongated limbs, and very small heads.
After that the Baroque sculptors emphasised dynamic movement and energy, their figures often "spiralled round an empty central vortex and reached out to the surronding space", all very theatrical. Bernini was an a master at carving marble, and his dramatic large-scale sculptures earned him comparisons with Michelangelo.
The Baroque style fell out of favour with the arrival of the Neoclassical movement in the 18th C. This is considered one of the great ages of public sculpture. They returned to the purity of Hellenistic sculpture.
The leading sculptor of the age was Canova who had been trained as a sculptor by his stonemason grandfather since he was 5 years old - he was carving marble by ten. He studied at the Venice art academy then went to Rome to sketch Michelangelo. The "pointing machine" was invented by a frenchman but Canova perfected it, and set up a workshop where he had assistants to do the initial marble copies leaving him to do the finishing stages. So, he was quite prolific...

  Bernini and Canova
Modern Classicism
By the 19th C. the main centre for sculpture had shifted from Italy to northern Europe, especially Paris. Sculptors became less interested in the absolute realism of Michelangelo and Canova, and mostly abandoned Greek mythology as subject matter in favour of ordinary people in fleeting poses.
The master of this era was Auguste Rodin, now considered the father of modern sculpture. He felt "love at first sight" with sculpture at 17, and trained at the Petit Ecole in Paris. But, he failed the entrance exam for the Ecole Des Beaux Arts 3 times. 17 years later he travelled to Rome to study Michelangelo. After that he sculpted "The age of bronze" which was so life-like he was accused of body casting. He had an influencial friend who cleared his name, and this led to a change in fortune. Many of his pieces were scorned and the press didnt like him, but he eventually became rich and respected among his artist peers. Like Canova he set up a workshop to employ assistants to make multiple copies of each piece. Unlike Canova, Rodin himself only worked in clay, all the marble was carved by assistants.
He had a 15 year affair with one of his pupils, Camille Claudel. She became his model and assistant and had a profound influence on his work in what was called "The Camille Period". NOW she is recognised as the greatest female sculptor of her time, but then, after their affair finished she was considered "mad" for accusing the famous Rodin of taking credit for her ideas. Her brother had her committed and he repeatedly refused the doctors' advice to let her out. She died in hospital, a victim of male dominated times.
Another important sculptor to pass through Rodin's "factory" was Maillol. His own works were more emotionally restrained, and concentrated on pure form. As such his work became a big influence on modern sculptors such as Brancusi, Arp and Moore.

  Rodin, Claudel and Maillol

More Sculptors....

To keep it brief the above timeline only mentions certain key sculptors,but there are many more well worth a look at.
Here is a selection from my collection of the famous and not-so-famous.

Alexandre Schoenewerk
- Young Tarantine

  Alexandre Schoenewerk - Young Tarantine

Auguste Ottin
- The Nymph Galatea in the arms of the shepherd

  Auguste Ottin - The Nymph Galatea in the arms of the shepherd

Piero de Verona
- Tomba Burrano, Cimitero di Staglieno

  Piero de Verona - Cimitero di Staglieno

Auguste Clesinger
- Woman bitten by a snake

  Auguste Clesinger - Woman bitten by a snake

HW Bissen
- The wrathful Achillies
  HW Bissen - The wrathful Achillies

James Pradier
- Satyr and Bacchante

  James Pradier - Satyr and Bacchante

Frederic Leighton
- The Sluggard

Laurent-Honore Marqueste
- Perseus Slaying Medusa
  Frederic Leighton, Laurent-Honore Marqueste

Christope-Gabriel Allegrain
- Bathing Venus

Bertram Mackennal
- Diana wounded
  Gabriel Allegrain, Bertram Mackennal

Victor Rousseau
- The Secret

  Victor Rousseau - The secret

Nicola Pisano
- Pisa Pulpit

- David
  Nicola Pisano and Donatello

Benvenuto Cellini
- Perseus

Baccio Bandinelli
- Hercules and Cacus
  Cellini and Bandinelli

Vincenzo de Rossi
- Hercules and Diomedes

There's a few reproductions of this, often showing a quite playful hold on Herc's todger. The original however has a real nutcracker grip. This, far from being homoerotic is an eye watering message about Mutually Assured Destruction...
  Vincenzo de Rossi - Hercules and Diomedes (the Nutcracker)

History of european sculpture © Gordon Adams.