CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Famous Sculptors Throughout the Ages

“In every block of marble, I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
Michelangelo
 

Since the beginning of civilization, the medium of sculpture has captivated viewers and enraptured the public. From the Venus of Willendorf carved in 22,000 B.C.E to Michelangelo’s circa 1500 marble David, Degas’ 19th-century bronze dancers and Rodin’s epic Kiss, to Louise Bourgeois’ 1990s spiders and Jeff Koons’ contemporary balloon animals, famous sculptures are universally recognizable and widely celebrated with the highest esteem. In turn, the creators of these works have gained their own cult of celebrity. Each of the famous sculptors discussed below have left an indelible mark on the medium and an insurmountable impact on the history of art, with their larger-than-life personas generating almost as much lore as their iconic three-dimensional works. Join us on a journey through time, exploring the most prolific masters of sculpture throughout the ages.

 
Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (blue), 1994-2000.
 

 

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (blue), 1994-2000.
 
Edgar Degas, Dancer Fastening the String of Her Tights, c. 1885 | M.S. Rau.
 
Edgar Degas, Dancer Fastening the String of Her Tights, c. 1885 | M.S. Rau.
 
Venus of Willendorf, 22,000 B.C.E.
 

 

Venus of Willendorf, 22,000 B.C.E.
 

Famous Sculptors of the Renaissance:

Influence of Antiquity:

The Renaissance is understood as one of the single most important periods of history, marked as the epoch of fervent artistic production—much of which was led by sculpture. The recovery of famous sculptures from classical antiquity spurred the creative minds of artists of the day, who sought to emulate the classics and perfect what was considered perfection. The result was the renewed reverence and recognition of the sculptures of classical antiquity and the new creation of some of the most famous and celebrated sculptures of all time.
 
One famous work from antiquity discovered during this time was the original Laocoön marble sculpture. Rediscovered in 1506, Michelangelo famously declared the sculpture, created circa 35 BC, as the “greatest piece of art in the world.” Inspired by Virgil’s epic poem, this composition heavily influenced sculptors of the Renaissance era and beyond, with several iterations chiseled from marble and cast in bronze. Adriaen de Vries, an apprentice of the great sculptor Giambologna, cast his own circa 1590 rendition in beautiful detail.
 
From artifacts of the ancient world and Greek Mythology sculptures to Modernist masterpieces and works of contemporary art, sculpture has enthralled viewers throughout the ages. Above: _Adriaen de Vries, Laocoön and His Sons,_  c. 1590 | M.S. Rau.
 
From artifacts of the ancient world and Greek Mythology sculptures to Modernist masterpieces and works of contemporary art, sculpture has enthralled viewers throughout the ages. Above: Adriaen de Vries, Laocoön and His Sons, c. 1590 | M.S. Rau.
 

Michelangelo:

While the incredible masterpieces of antiquity were preserved and emulated by budding Renaissance artists, the names of these ancient sculptors were not. That changed in the Renaissance, when the new Masters began to forge their own creative paths, guided by the ideals of the past and eager to capture the beauty of the present. As they chiseled their own original compositions, the names of these Renaissance sculptors became synonymous with their incredible works.
 
Michelangelo is perhaps the most famous of the early Renaissance sculptors, with his contemporaries like Vasari (the original Art Historian) praising his work as an improvement upon the perfection of antiquity. The famous Italian sculptor had the unique ability to look upon a single block of marble and visualize a figure within, utilizing his chisel to free the figure from its block and reveal the beauty of the natural human form to the world. His skill in creating works from a single block of marble was unparalleled in his day, and his sculpting abilities became the standard from which all sculptures moving forward were judged. Michelangelo’s seminal David is regarded as his most important masterpiece, and also, as one of the most famous and celebrated sculptures of all time. Marked by overwhelming physiognomic accuracy and graceful lines and symmetry, Vasari once wrote, “Anyone who has seen Michelangelo's David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead."
 
Above: Michelangelo’s 1501 David, regarded as one of the most famous works in all of _antique sculpture_ . Accademia Gallery, Florence, Italy.
 
Above: Michelangelo’s 1501 David, regarded as one of the most famous works in all of antique sculpture. Accademia Gallery, Florence, Italy.

 
Supported by his incomparable talent and iconic compositions, the unimpeachable reverence and international celebrity of Michelangelo is unsurpassed. Sculptors from the high Renaissance era to today have remained indebted to his genius, as exemplified by a late 19th-century work by Italian sculptor Emilio Zocchi. Forged from Carrera marble, Zocchi’s work captures the pivotal moment—recounted by Vasari—when Lorenzo de' Medici came upon Michelangelo replicating an ancient statue and first truly understood the talent of the young sculptor and invited him to stay in the Palazzo Medici. By immortalizing this sort of “origin” story in marble, Zocchi casts Michelangelo into the same heroic canon of the stories antiquity. And further, Zocchi casts himself as a torchbearer for this standard of excellence. The overwhelming presence of Michelangelo in the history of sculpture—and the history of art, for the matter—simply cannot be overstated.
 
Emilio Zocchi’s late 19th century Young Michelangelo and other impressive works of rare art are held in the collection at M.S. Rau.
 
Emilio Zocchi’s late 19th century Young Michelangelo and other impressive works of rare art are held in the collection at M.S. Rau.
 

Bernini:

The only sculptor to rival the genius of Michelangelo is the 17th-century Master Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was credited with creating what would come to be known as the Baroque style. Bernini was a virtuoso with the chisel, creating some of the most lifelike and creative compositions in marble ever seen. His works were imbued with an overwhelming sense of drama, passion and movement. Bernini utilized deep undercuts and impossibly true to life drapery folds to connote movement in the body, contorting his figures in incredible poses yet retaining proportionality. Bernini’s skill also spoke to the larger paragone of the day—the ongoing debate as to whether sculpture or painting reigned supreme. According to prominent art historian Estelle Lingo, Bernini’s transformative drapery worked to conjoin painting and sculpture, forming the basis of decisively Baroque sculpture. Some of Bernini’s most famous works include his stunning Apollo and Daphne at the Galleria Borghese, the supernatural collosi St. Longinus, situated at the crossings of St. Peter’s Basillica, and his sublime altarpiece The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Bernini enjoyed papal patronage during his lifetime, and perhaps most importantly, the prominent support of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who commissioned some of his most celebrated works. Borghese commissioned Bernini to carve an original David sculpture in 1623. The result was an artistic triumph that earned widespread acclaim and announced Bernini as a worthy successor to Michelangelo.
 
Bernini’s marble of the biblical narrative stands apart for the way David interacts with the space around the sculpture, engaging with his invisible adversary and twisting his body as he unleashes his slingshot. While the original marble still resides at the Galleria Borghese, the below bronze sculpture is an accomplished composition after Bernini’s marble from a 17th-century French follower, evidencing the influence of the visionary’s masterpiece even beyond Italy. The French sculptor demonstrates remarkable finesse in the bronze, capturing the same expressive emotion in David’s face and the strength of his stance that made Bernini’s original so unforgettable.
 
After Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bronze of David, 17th Century | M.S. Rau. Interested in learning more bronze sculptures? Check out our Guide to Types of Bronze Sculptures
 

 

After Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bronze of David, 17th Century | M.S. Rau. Interested in learning more bronze sculptures? Check out our Guide to Types of Bronze Sculptures.
 

Impressionism to Modern Art: Later Famous Sculpture Artists

While the Renaissance and Baroque periods were marked by the desire to reimagine the compositions of classical antiquity with a more perfect portrayal of the natural figure, later sculpture artists looked to abstraction to render the contours of the human body. Though many still worked with marble and stone, bronze emerged as a leading medium that lent itself well to innovative creative expression and multiplied output.
 

Edgar Degas:

While many of the artists discussed here earned widespread recognition for their sculptures during their lifetime, Edgar Degas was better known for his work with oil painting and pastels during his prime. He exhibited just one sculpture during his lifetime, the controversial Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. The sculpture received mixed reactions from visitors who were divided by the figure’s unidealized physiognomy and Degas’ relatively unprecedented use of real materials such as silk slippers and a wig made from human hair. While Degas refrained from further exhibiting his sculptural oevre to the public, he continued to model in wax and clay in the privacy of his studio. Throughout his career, Degas produced hundreds of small-scale, informal studies of horses, dancers and bathers that were seen only by close friends and visitors. It was not until the artist’s death that the extent of this sculptural production was revealed. Of the nearly 150 models retrieved from Degas’s studio, the artist’s heirs selected 74 of the best-preserved examples to cast in bronze and sell as an edition, making the artist’s unknown prowess in sculpting public and permanent. These sculptures have become some of the famed artist’s most recognizable and sought-after works.
 
Above: Edgar Degas, Arabesque on Right Side c. 1885 | M.S. Rau. This bronze sculpture exemplifies Degas’ signature style and wonderful understanding of the human form. This rendering was cast by Valsuani from a plaster that was taken directly from Degas’ waxes.
 
Above: Edgar Degas, Arabesque on Right Side, c. 1885 | M.S. Rau. This bronze sculpture exemplifies Degas’ signature style and wonderful understanding of the human form. This rendering was cast by Valsuani from a plaster that was taken directly from Degas’ waxes.
 

Auguste Rodin:

Auguste Rodin is perhaps the most famous sculptor of the 19th and 20th centuries. The illustrious French artist is credited as the founder of modern sculpture and his iconic works are globally renowned and prized by the finest museums and institutions. Rodin is celebrated for his ability to capture the vitality of embodied human forms and the intensity of human emotion in his masterful sculptural works, generating universal appeal and widespread recognition.
 
Auguste Rodin, Le Baiser, conceived 1886 | M.S. Rau
 
Auguste Rodin, Le Baiser, conceived 1886 | M.S. Rau
 
Captivating and romantic, Auguste Rodin’s Le Baiser is one of the most famous sculptures in the world and among the most celebrated of Rodin’s works. The initial renderings for the sculpture that would come to be known as Le Baiser or The Kiss show that the work was originally intended to be included in Rodin’s massive magnum opus, The Gates of Hell. A monumental bronze sculptural group work, The Gates of Hell depicts figures from the Inferno, the first section of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Another renowned work from the sculptural group that eventually became a stand alone sculpture is Rodin’s ever-famous The Thinker.
 
Rodin also transformed his sculpture of the Divine Comedy’s Paolo and Francesca, ill-fated lovers who acted on their adulterous passions and were damned to spend an eternity bound together in Dante’s Hell, into a separate independent work. Free of the connection to Dante’s Story, the sculpture claimed more universal appeal and quickly came to be known simply as The Kiss or Le Baiser by an enthralled public. The work’s sensuality and tenderness have made Le Baiser one of the most celebrated compositions in Western art.
 
Spurred by his astounding artistic point of view and ability to imbue his works with universally relevant human emotions, Rodin has earned his place as the father of modern sculpture and as one of the most famous sculptors in art history.
 

Contemporary Famous Sculptors:

Though the golden age of famous sculptors often conjures the works of Renaissance artists and modern masters, artists of the contemporary art era have also generated works that place them in conversation with their most-famous predecessors. Many contemporary sculptors have departed from purely figurative works to create more conceptual art.
 
Louise Bourgeois:

Born in the early 20th century France, Louise Bourgeois carried on a prolific career and explored several mediums throughout her life. Her most famous works, however, are her larger-than-life towering spider sculptures. Bourgeois described these spider sculptures as her “most successful subject.” Bourgeois uses the spider, both predator (a sinister threat) and protector (an industrious repairer), to symbolize the mother figure. The spinning and weaving of the spider’s web links to Bourgeois’s own mother, who worked in the family’s tapestry restoration business, and who encouraged Louise to participate. In an often male-dominated medium, Bourgeois’ works stand as a unique and thoughtful counterpoint to the figurative works of her predecessors. You can view one of her giant spiders and even walk beneath it at New Orleans Museum of Art’s own Sculpture Garden.

 
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996 | Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at New Orleans Museum of Art
 

 

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996 | Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at New Orleans Museum of Art
 
 

Jeff Koons:
Love him or hate him, you have certainly seen one of Jeff Koons famous balloon animal pieces. While Koons’ work is polarizing, its instant recognizability has made him one of the world’s most famous contemporary sculptors. Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons’ balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. Some view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as kitsch and based on cynical self-merchandising. The American artist himself has stated that there are no hidden meanings and critiques in his works of contemporary sculpture—though this statement itself could be part of the ruse.

 
Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, 1994-2000, seen here at the 2008 Château de Versailles exhibition. Though quite controversial, the recognizable popularity of Jeff Koon’s body of work has cemented the artists place as a leader of contemporary _American fine art
 

 

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, 1994-2000, seen here at the 2008 Château de Versailles exhibition. Though quite controversial, the recognizable popularity of Jeff Koon’s body of work has cemented the artists place as a leader of contemporary American fine art.
 

The Legacy of Famous Sculptors:

Whether forging heroic bronzes and chiseling away scenes from classical antiquity in marble or creating larger-than-life balloon animals, famous sculptors throughout the ages of art history have certainly always generated buzz around their works. Perhaps it is their ability to render the human form in three dimensions or authentically capture authentic emotion. Or maybe it is their unparalleled artistic genius—or the debate over this very ingenuity. Regardless, sculptors throughout the ages have all made their mark on the history of art and inspired the next generation. The influence of famous sculptors is strong and the future is bright for many more sculptors to chisel and cast their way to worldwide acclaim.
 
If you’re interested in collecting art, sculpture is always a wonderful addition to any collection. Browse our selection of sculptures today.


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