Works here, all from the late 19th or early 20th century, illustrate the interests of sculptors since ancient times -- their subjects, materials, techniques. Favored above all are the human figure and the human face, idealized or expressive. The materials -- bronze, marble, plaster, clay -- may be worked to a smooth, cool finish or animated with the artist's gesture. Some examples are cast in molds taken from a sculptor's model, while others are carved or modeled directly by hand.

Rodin brought new life to sculpture with a fiercely expressionistic handling of materials and the human form. His rough surfaces have been compared to impressionist brushwork. He broke new ground with fragmentary figures -- torsos that are headless, armless, legless and yet so powerful they seem to move. To an unprecedented extent, Rodin authorized production of his sculpture in various sizes and media by specialist casters and carvers. All here were made during the artist's lifetime, some by his own hand.

Degas, Renoir, and Gauguin, celebrated as painters, also worked as sculptors. The National Gallery owns the world's largest collection of the original wax sculpture Degas modeled in continual experimentation. He concentrated on subjects from the modern world -- dancers, bathers, and race horses in motion. Gauguin favored imagery from remote, exotic cultures, often carved in wood, while Renoir turned to clay to evoke the warmth of family life.

Many of the best sculptors of the early 20th century reacted against the expressive form and animated surfaces of Rodin, preferring instead the fundamental classicism seen in these rooms. Figures are often quiet and self-contained. Masses are simplified and detail reduced or treated with rhythmic abstraction. Planes are smoothed, and these uncluttered contours call attention both to the figure and the space around it. Lines are streamlined for the machine age, yet forms recall the timelessness of ancient art.

For much of this period the elevated themes and idealized coolness of neoclassical art prevailed in sculpture. Among the first defectors were artists specializing in animal subjects. Theirs was a romantic, epic view of Nature -- at once terrible and beautiful. While these were quite popular, other innovative work went largely unknown. The public, for example, saw the politically subversive and dynamic sculpture of Daumier -- better known as a draftsman and caricaturist -- only a year before his death.

These galleries suggest original settings for 18th-century sculpture. Filled with furniture, paintings, tapestries, and porcelains, they provide a sense of rococo's charm and informality, with its lighthearted subjects and scrolling ornament. The rooms also witness the beginnings of neoclassicism, which made its first appearance in the decorative arts. Archaeological discoveries fanned a passion for all things Greek and Roman -- new forms of decoration, classically inspired metalwork, and new furniture designs based on ancient models.

In a museum devoted to Western art, Chinese porcelains may come as a surprise. They belong to the patterns of 19th century collecting and connoisseurship that formed the National Gallery. Valued in their own right for their virtuosity and rarity, these porcelains were also regarded as a fitting complement to Old Master paintings and sculpture. Most date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when Chinese ceramics reached a peak of technical perfection.

Sculpture of the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy, France, and northern Europe dominates these galleries. Many bronze figures, in their elegant spiraling poses and complex spatial relationships, show the impact of the great Flemish-Florentine artist Giambologna. The dynamic and expressive qualities of baroque sculpture appear in the Mazzuoli Nereid.

The sculpture and decorative arts in these galleries were designed for Renaissance homes and churches. Expansive tapestries of religious subjects adorned the walls of rich palaces, where logs burned in carved stone fireplaces. Portrait busts, images of saints, and reliefs of the Madonna and Child were part of daily life. Small bronzes that revived themes from ancient mythology enlivened the desks of scholars and merchants.

Treasures of medieval art, seen with the jeweled colors of stained glass, include enameled containers and an ancient cup mounted in gilt silver. Medieval and Renaissance churches also displayed wooden or stone images of holy figures, often brightly painted. Renaissance artists' skill in modeling and bronze-casting created some of the greatest miniature sculpture ever produced -- portrait medals and the little reliefs of mythological and Bible stories known as plaquettes. The National Gallery has the finest series of plaquettes anywhere.

RODIN : The Age of Bronze
RODIN : The Thinker
CARRIER-BELLEUSE : The Abduction of Hippodamia

"Awakening, the slow return home from a deep dream." This was the quality that Rodin, many years later, said his statue embodied for him. The Age of Bronze was the sculptor's second life-size work and the earliest to survive. He struggled with it for a year and a half, wanting to achieve the most harmonious relationships between contour and volume. Walking around his figure -- originally modeled in clay -- he checked each view, each "profile" as he said, against the man posing before him. He was a young soldier, Auguste Neyt, "a fine noble-hearted boy, full of fire and valor." Rodin had avoided a professional model because he sought naturalness, not exaggeration. Some critics at the time thought it too natural and accused the artist of having cast the work from life, from molds made on Neyt's body itself.

The public was confused about the statue's meaning. Rodin initially exhibited it without any title at all. Later he called it Le Vaincu (The Vanquished), but by the time a bronze cast was shown at the Salon of 1880, it was called The Age of Bronze, referring to man's awakening progress toward a more complex civilization. For Rodin, however, what counted more was how his statue looked. He wanted to create a figure that was beautiful and expressive -- not a representation of some particular idea, of some hero like David, or a god of the ancient world. Nineteenth-century audiences, however, expected that sort of meaning, meaning they could apprehend. Rodin's priorities were modern and stunning.

The Age of Bronze
model 1875-1876, cast 1898

DIMENSIONS: 180 x 71.1 x 58.4 cm (70 7/8 x 28 x 23 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Gift of Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, in Honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

Copyright © National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.