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From Neoclassical to Romantic and Realistic Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014


The strong vein of classicism that runs through the baroque period came to the fore around 1750. The study of antique sculpture and rejection of baroque at this time received much of its impetus from the work of the German scholar J. J. Winckelmann, who became the chief theorist of neoclassicism. Interest in classical culture was also stimulated by the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

A return to the idealization and purity of Greek art was already apparent in the work of Jean Antoine Houdon. But this became more uncompromising in the marbles of Antonio Canova, whose Theseus and the Minotaur is the first significant example of the neoclassical approach.

From its beginnings in Rome, neoclassicism became a widely international movement. England was an important center, with Thomas Banks, John Flaxman, and Richard Westmacott among its leaders. Other important sculptors were Bertel Thorvaldsen in Denmark, who, apart from his own work, restored classical sculpture, and Gottfried Schadow in Germany.

The imitation of classical sculpture, which soon became recognized as the mainstay of a sculptor's education in the academies, received vast official support during the late 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and the United States. This revivalist sculpture was based mainly on the study of plaster casts of Greek originals and Roman copies, and its cold white marble perfection seldom approaches anywhere near the spirit of genuine classical sculpture.


Romantic and Realistic

The 19th century was an extremely complex period in the history of sculpture. The growth of a wealthy bourgeoisie affected tastes and patronage. Private individuals and public bodies rather than the church and the court commissioned sculpture, and their preference was for the naïvely realistic and sentimental. Statues were erected in vast quantities to commemorate local dignitaries, musicians, writers, and the like, and public buildings and parks were not considered complete without sculptural decoration. Classical, allegorical, medieval, and exotic themes were among the most popular. Rival attitudes and schools argued the merits of different approaches to art, and the conservative artistic establishment was bitterly opposed by a struggling Romantic movement. In sculpture, as in painting, the opposition to academic sterility developed mainly in France.


One of the first and most original Romantic sculptors was A. A. Préault, who attempted to express a new range of feelings and ideas through the medium of relief. François Rude's The Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is a vigorous mixture of elements from various styles, strongly Romantic in feeling. Jean Baptiste Carpeaux modeled with great freedom and exploited the possibilities of an "unfinished" surface, which showed something of his handling of the medium. Jules Dalou produced realistic studies of peasants and workmen in their everyday clothes.

The Romantic and realist tendencies in France culminated in the work of Auguste Rodin, unquestionably one of the world's greatest sculptors. He detested the formulas of academic classical sculpture, although he loved Greek sculpture itself, and he admired and studied Donatello and Michelangelo. Principally a modeler, he handled his material with incredible facility and used the human figure as a vehicle for the expression of complex and powerful feelings. He cultivated the romantic possibilities of the incomplete sculptural fragment and of fluently modeled "unfinished" surfaces. Through unremitting study of the anatomy and movement of the human body, he was able to express in the poses of his figures and the ripple of muscle and tendon on their surfaces all kinds of inner tensions and feelings that were utterly beyond the range of his contemporaries. Some of the most important works among his prolific output are The Gates of Hell, a long project based on Dante's Divine Comedy; a monumental statue of Balzac; and The Burghers of Calais, all in bronze.


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      4 years ago

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