Neoclassical, 19th-Century & Modern Sculpture

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  • 0:00 Neoclassical Sculpture
  • 1:54 Romanticism,…
  • 3:54 Sculpture of the 20th Century
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will present the history of sculpture in the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. We will look at Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Symbolism, the art of Auguste Rodin, and the movements of 20th- century sculpture.

Neoclassical Sculpture

Hey! The name's Rocky, and I'm your guide through the history of sculpture. What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a talking statue before? You'd better get used to me because I'm about to take you on a journey through sculpture in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Before we begin, let's define sculpture. Basically, it's just three-dimensional art. Some of it appears in the round; that is, free-standing. Other pieces are in relief, which means that they stand out from a base surface, kind of like a 3D picture.

Now that we've established that, let's jump right into the last part of the 18th century. For many years, the Baroque and Rococo movements had dominated the art world. These were highly decorative styles that loved complexity and lots of ornamentation, but some artists were getting rather tired of what they saw as frivolity in art. They were ready to change direction and get serious about their sculpture. Inspired by the archeological excavations at Pompeii and Athens, they turned to the ancient world.

The result was Neoclassicism, an artistic movement that returned to the forms, styles, and subjects of the ancient world, especially ancient Greece. Neoclassicism was all about order and reason. Artists emphasized heroic virtue, duty, refinement, and dignity. They employed classical motifs like mythological figures, columns, robes, and garlands, and the lines of their work tended to be sharp and angular.

Neoclassical sculptors created monumental statues of contemporary military heroes and statesmen, whom they dressed in the ancient garb of Greeks and Romans. Jean Antoine Houdon, for instance, sculpted a statue of George Washington dressed as a Roman emperor, and Antonio Canova depicted Napoleon Bonaparte as the Roman god of war, Mars.

Romanticism, Symbolism, and Rodin

Trends come, and trends go, and before too long, artists started to get tired of the precision, strict standards, and seriousness of Neoclassicism, which had come to dominate academic art. They wanted to recapture the freedom of creative expression, and out of that desire grew the Romanticism of the 19th century.

Romanticism, a movement that extended throughout the artistic, literary, and musical worlds, focused on individual expression, beauty, emotion, history, nature, religion, and social conflict. Artists like François Rude and Antoine Louis Barye attempted to present the human realm and the natural world with intensity of feeling and drama.

Some artists chose to concentrate primarily on the spiritual realm in the Symbolism movement. Reacting against the rationalism of their era and even against the naturalism of the Romantics, they infused their art with mysticism and symbolic representations of the greatest human emotions, like love, fear, and desire. These artists created fantastic, dream-like images.

Still other 19th century artists weren't content to follow any particular movement but preferred to strike out on their own. One of these artists was French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin developed a personal style that focused on the moments of human life. He played with lights and shadows, dramatic movement, strange angles, relationships between figures, and unfinished surfaces, and he tried to capture the modern physicality, psychology, agitation, and constant motion that he saw all around him. Rodin's most famous sculptures include The Thinker, The Kiss, The Age of Bronze, and The Gates of Hell. Many art historians consider Rodin to be the father of modern art.

Sculpture of the 20th Century

As the 20th century dawned, sculptors, led by artists like Rodin, were ready to experiment with new forms, techniques, and materials, and experiment they did! Modern sculpture is difficult to define because it is so varied. Its subjects are often ideas, emotions, dreams, and abstract shapes rather than human or natural forms. Sculptors refused to limit themselves to the traditional stone and bronze but played with steel, plastic, and even unusual materials like boxes and car parts.

Movements in 20th-century sculpture include:

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