5 Greatest Sculptors of All Time

Playing in two dimensions is easy enough, but what truly separates the men from the boys? Maybe it's when you give up your easel for a tool belt and get to work with a hammer and chisel. These amazing sculptors took their talents 3-D.

1. Donatello (1386? - 1466)


David in bronze (Photo Credit: italiangerry [Flickr])

St. George (bronze copy of the marble original) (Photo Credit: Jastrow [wiki])

Unquestionably the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, Donatello [wiki] was born in Florence, though he traveled widely and was famous throughout Italy. Donatello had complete mastery of bronze, stone, wood, and terra cotta, and nothing escaped his extraordinary capabilities: relief sculpture, nudes, equestrian statues, groups of figures, and single figures seated or standing. In fact, he reinvented the art of sculpture just as other contemporaries were reinventing the art of painting, and his innovations and discoveries were profoundly influential. Above all, Donatello seemed to be able to bring sculpture to life by his ability to tell a story, combine realism and powerful emotion, and create the impression that his figures were more than mere objects of beauty for passive contemplation, but creations filled with energy and thought, ready to spring into action.

2. Michelangelo (1475 - 1564)


Michelangelo's David


Michelangelo's Pietà

Clearly an outstanding genius, Michelangelo's [wiki] influence dominated European art until Picasso changed the rules. A sculptor first, painter and architect second, Michelangelo was a workaholic - a melancholic, temperamental, and lonely figure. He had a profound belief in the human form (especially the male nude) as the ultimate expression of human spirituality, sensibility, and beauty. In fact, Michelangelo's early work shows the human being as the measure of all things: idealized, muscular, confident, and quasi-divine. Gradually that image becomes more expressive, more human, less perfect, fallible, and flawed. He loved turning and twisting poses full of latent energy, and faces that expressed the full range of human emotion. Endlessly inventive, he never repeated a pose, although being a true Renaissance man, he was proud to borrow from Greek and Roman precedents.

3. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680)


Bernini's Apollo and Daphne


Bernini's Rape of Proserpina


Bernini's David

Bernini [wiki] set sculpture free from its previous occupation with earthly gravity and intellectual emotion, allowing it to discover a new freedom that permitted it to move, soar, and have a visionary and theatrical quality. A child prodigy, Bernini had a sparkling personality and brilliant wit (he wrote comedies) - qualities that shine through his sculptures. He was also a true visionary technically, able to carve marble so as to make it seem to move or have the delicacy of the finest lace. At his best he blends sculpture, architecture, and painting into an extravagant theatrical ensemble, especially in his fountains, where the play of water and light over his larger-than-life human figures and animals creates a vision that is literally out of this world.

4. Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917)


Rodin's The Thinker, original bronze cast at the Musée Rodin in Paris (Image credit: a.muse.d [Flickr])


Rodin's Gates of Hell, at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Rodin's The Walking Man (Photo credit: David. Monniaux [wiki])

Rodin [wiki] is the glorious, triumphant finale to the sculptural tradition that starts with Donatello. He is rightly spoken of in the same breath as Michelangelo, although they're very different: Michelangelo carved into marble whereas Rodin molded with clay. A shy workaholic, untidy, and physically enormous, Rodin emerged from impoverished beginnings. He became an international celebrity and was deeply attractive to smart women. Rodin was also well known for loving the fluidity of clay and plaster, and was able to retain this quality even when his work was cast in bronze, thereby magically releasing in his figures an extraordinary range of human feelings and a sense of the unknown forces of nature.

5. Constantin Brancusi (1876 - 1957)


Brancusi's The Kiss


Brancusi's The Endless Column

Brancusi [wiki] is one of the seminal figures of 20th-century art with a profound influence on sculpture and design. Born into a Romanian peasant family, he settled in Paris in 1904, becoming a student of Rodin. Amazingly, Brancusi remained indifferent to honor and fame. At the heart of his work is a tireless refinement and search for purity. Never abstract, his work always references something recognizable in nature. Brancusi believed in the maxim "Truth to materials," and he always brought out the inherent quality of each material that he used. The purity and simplicity of his form touch something very basic in the human psyche, just as does, for example, the sound of the waves of the sea.

From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission.

Original article written by Robert Cumming, an art critic and writer. Cumming was also a curator in the Tate Gallery Education Department, and founder and chairman of the Christies Education programs.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!



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Art in general went astray when it didn't keep pace with science during the middle Baroque. Artists have been lost ever since. Bernini was in the next to last generation to be able to be both an artist and a scientist. After around 1700 art has gone into numerous revivals or rejections that cannot keep pace with the dedicated , persistent, search and discovery of truth that necessarily occupies science. Bernini's sculpture is miraculous in that he was able to instinctually create sculptures from Galileo's discovery of Jupiters moon IO which sort of makes marble into wax which was Bernini's intent. Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system.
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... let us not also forget the great Giuliano Finelli -- a one-time assistant of Bernini's who did the actual carving for many of the elements most praised in some of Bernini's sculptures (the delicate leaves on Bernini's Apollo & Daphne, for example). Bernini himself considered Finelli to be a better carver, and relied on him to pull off these difficult feats in marble. Finelli eventually split with Bernini because he was tired of Bernini taking all of the credit for his work and for hogging all the big commissions. Finelli went on to sculpt many breathtaking pieces on his own -- pieces that, in the opinions of many, surpass the technical skill of Bernini.
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