Sculpture has been a means of human expression since prehistoric times. The ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia produced an enormous number of sculptural masterworks, frequently monolithic, that had ritual significance beyond aesthetic considerations (see Egyptian art; Assyrian art; Sumerian and Babylonian art; Hittite art and architecture; Phoenician art). The sculptors of the ancient Americas developed superb, sophisticated techniques and styles to enhance their works, which were also symbolic in nature (see pre-Columbian art and architecture; North American Native art). In Asia sculpture has been a highly developed art form since antiquity (see Chinese art; Japanese art; Indian art and architecture).
The freestanding and relief sculpture of the ancient Greeks developed from the rigidity of archaic forms. It became, during the classical and Hellenistic eras, the representation of the intellectual idealization of its principal subject, the human form. The concept was so magnificently realized by means of naturalistic handling as to become the inspiration for centuries of European art. Roman sculpture borrowed and copied wholesale from the Greek in style and techniques, but it made an important original contribution in its extensive art of portraiture, forsaking the Greek ideal by particularizing the individual (see Greek art; Etruscan art; Roman art).
In Europe the great religious architectural sculptures of the Romanesque and Gothic periods form integral parts of the church buildings, and often a single cathedral incorporates thousands of figural and narrative carvings. Outstanding among the Romanesque sculptural programs of the cathedrals and churches of Europe are those at Vézelay, Moissac, and Autun (France); Hildesheim (Germany); and Santiago de Compostela (Spain). Remarkable sculptures of the Gothic era are to be found at Chartres and Reims (France); Bamberg and Cologne (Germany). Most of this art is anonymous, but as early as the 13th cent. the individual sculptor gained prominence in Italy with Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.
The late medieval sculptors preceded a long line of famous Italian Renaissance sculptors from Della Quercia to Giovanni da Bologna. The center of the art was Florence, where the great masters found abundant public, ecclesiastical, and private patronage. The city was enriched by the masterpieces of Ghiberti, Donatello, the Della Robbia family, the Pollaiuolo brothers, Cellini, and Michelangelo. The northern Renaissance also produced important masters who were well known individually, such as the German Peter Vischer the elder, the Flemish Claus Sluter, and Pilon and Goujon in France.
In France a courtly and secular art flourished under royal patronage during the 16th and 17th cent. In Italy the essence of the high baroque was expressed in the dynamism, technical perfection, originality, and unparalleled brilliance of the works of the sculptor-architect Bernini. The sculpture of Puget in France was more consistently Baroque in style and theme than that of his contemporaries Girardon and the Coustous.
The 18th cent. modified the dramatic and grandiose style of the baroque to produce the more intimate art of Clodion and Houdon, and it also saw the birth of neoclassicism in the work of Canova. This derivative style flourished well into the 19th cent. in the work of Thorvaldsen and his followers, but concurrent with the neoclassicists, and then superseding them, came a long and distinguished line of French realist sculptors from Rude to Rodin.
Rodin's innovations in expressive techniques helped many 20th-century sculptors to free their work from the extreme realism of the preceding period and also from the long domination of the Greek ideal. In the work of Aristide Maillol, that ideal predominates. The influence of other traditions, such as those of African sculpture and Aztec sculpture (in both of which a more direct expression of materials, textures, and techniques is found), has contributed to this liberation (see African art).
Among the gifted 20th-century sculptors who have explored different and highly original applications of the art are sculptors working internationally, including Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, Jacques Lipschitz, Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, Ossip Zadkine, Alberto Giacometti, and Ivan Mĕstrović. Important contributions have also been made by the sculptors Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth (English); Aristide Maillol, Charles Despiau, and Jean Arp (French); Ernst Barlach, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Georg Kolbe (German); Julio González (Spanish); Giacomo Manzù and Marino Marini (Italian); and Alexander Calder, William Zorach, David Smith, Richard Lippold, Eva Hesse, and Louise Nevelson (American).
An element of much modern sculpture is movement. In kinetic works the sculptures are so balanced as to move when touched by the viewer; others are driven by machine. Large moving and stationary works in metal are frequently manufactured and assembled by machinists in factories according to the sculptor's design specifications.
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