What is Sculpture? - Definition, Evolution & Major Artists

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Discover what makes the art of sculpture special. Explore the evolution of sculpture through the works of famous sculptors throughout history, and learn about tribal, readymade, kinetic, and biomorphic sculpture. Then test yourself on your new knowledge.

These Works Of Art Don't Hang On Walls

Whether sculpted out of stone or wood, cast from metal, pieced together, or found fully formed, the single quality that qualifies a work of art as sculpture is that it occupies three dimensions. Art galleries set off special places for these works: they are often found in gardens, featured in alcoves, or placed center stage. The Hirshhorn Museum of modern and contemporary art in Washington, D.C., for example, features a sculpture garden outside its main building, inviting visitors to stroll in from off the national mall. The spaces flow so seamlessly, you almost don't know you're in an art museum.

Sculpture Garden at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D. C.
hirshhorn museum and sculpture garden

There are several kinds of sculpture. Statues, for example, are a particular type of sculpture, like the Statue of Liberty, that depict a human or animal form. There are other kinds of sculptures as well, like readymades, kinetic sculptures and mobiles.

Carving, Casting, Dancing, and Hanging

Sculpture is an ancient art, passed down from antiquity. Ancient cultures carved visages out of stone and wood, like totems and effigies: the Native American totem pole, the Maoi of Easter Island, the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt.

Throughout the course of its development, artists struggled to define what made one form of art distinct from another. For example, what was special about sculpture that couldn't be achieved in the staging of an opera? 18th century German art scholar Gottfried Lessing wrote a key text in which he tried to show the differences between a narrative art form like poetry and an immobile visual art like scultpure, making a comparison between the Laocoon (pictured below) and its story as told by Virgil in The Aeneid. Lessing got artists and scholars to reconsider what made a poem specific from a painting. Why would an artist use the medium of sculpture to express himself rather than writing a song, for example?


Before Lessing, it was generally accepted that if an artist wished to express a passage of time and a sense of movement, he should write a ballad or choreograph a dance. If he wished to portray a moment in time, he should carve a sculpture or paint a picture. But since then, many artists have tried to prove this assumption false.

Take kinetic sculpture for example. Beginning in the 19th century, artists began using sculpture to actually show movement in action. This type of sculpture is designed either to give off an explicit sense of motion, or else to actually move on its own. Examples range from Degas' bronze dancers to Calder's mobiles.

The Industrial Revolution changed the possibilities available to sculptors. After the rise of modernism, the artist became able to manufacture all sorts of materials for the production of sculpture.

Avant garde artist Marcel Duchamp invented the concept of the readymade, or found object. He famously placed a real bathroom urinal on a gallery pedestal, calling it a sculpture. Duchamp's radical gesture opened the doors to different ways of generating sculpture.

Other advances in the 20th century include the influence of biomorphism on sculpture, in the work of Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore, for example. Biomorphism in art relates to the integration of natural and organic form into a work. These works sometimes look amorphous, without solid form, like British sculptor Henry Moore's Oval with Points. In the case of Brancusi, biomorphic art can look very much like an organism, as with Endless Column.

Henry Moore, Oval with Points

Famous Sculptors and Their Work

Michelangelo's David is one of the most famous sculptures in the world. Carved out of marble and standing at a height of a little over 14 feet, it's somewhat ironic that the statue portrays the biblical hero, the little man who defeated the giant, Goliath. Michaelangelo was a prodigious High Renaissance artist who exerted a great deal of influence on the art world, even during his lifetime. Though he had more admiration for the art of sculpting than painting, he's also famous for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), considered the first sculptor to embrace modernism, struggled to find ways to express duration through sculpture. While The Thinker is his most famous artwork, the concept of duration, as in a sense of movement, is represented more clearly in The Kiss. If you didn't know it was made of bronze, could you imagine it coming to life?

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