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.


DEGAS : Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
RENOIR : Maternity: Madame Renoir and Son
GAUGUIN : Père Paillard
 

At the sixth impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881, Edgar Degas presented the only sculpture that he would ever exhibit in public. The Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, the title given by the artist, has become one of the most beloved works of art, well known through the many bronze casts produced from this unique original statuette after the artist's death. She was not so warmly received when she first appeared. The critics protested almost unanimously that she was ugly, but had to acknowledge the work's astonishing realism as well as its revolutionary nature. The mixed media of the Little Dancer, basically a wax statuette dressed in real clothes, was very innovative, most of all because she was a "modern subject": a student dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet. Marie van Goethen, the model for the figure, was the daughter of a Belgian tailor and a laundress; her working-class background was typical of the Paris Opera school's ballerinas. These dancers were known as "rats de l'opéra,"  literally opera rats, presumably because of the scurrying around the stage in tiny fast-moving steps. But the derogatory association of rats with dirt and sewage is unavoidable. Though privileged as a servant of art, the Little Dancer was viewed in morally unfavorable terms by her contemporaries. Young, pretty, and poor, the ballet students were understood as potential targets of male "protectors." Degas understood the predicament of the Little Dancer -- what the contemporary reviewer Joris-Karl Huysmans called her "terrible reality." The Little Dancer is a very poignant, deeply felt work of art in which a little girl of fourteen, in spite of the difficult position in which she is placed, both physically and psychologically, struggles for a measure of dignity: her head is held high, though her arms and hands are uncomfortably stretched behind her back.

In the context of the evolution of sculpture, the Little Dancer is a groundbreaking work of art. The liberating idea that any medium or technique necessary to convey the desired effect is fair game may be traced back to this sculpture. Degas represented a working-class subject, though not an everyday one, with both realism and compassion, but without moralizing. In so doing, he captured with brilliant simplicity the difficult tension between art and life.

EDGAR DEGAS
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
1879-1881

MATERIAL: Yellow wax, hair, various textiles, wood base
DIMENSIONS: 99 cm (39 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
ACCESSION NUMBER: 1999.80.28


INTERACTIVE MAP  ::  ABOUT THE GALLERIES
Copyright © National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

NGA HOME