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.

VERROCCHIO : Putto Poised on a Globe
SEVERO : Neptune on a Sea Monster
NETHERLANDISH : The Triumph of Christ

Gold and silver threads add life to this tapestry, often described as the finest surviving from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Everything indicates that this was an important commission: its size -- more than 13 feet wide; its workmanship -- woven with as many as 28 warp (vertical) threads per inch; and its lavish materials -- with up to thirty percent of the surface woven with gold or silver wrapped threads. Perhaps this tapestry was made to celebrate a royal wedding, but the first information about it dates from 150 years after its creation. It was listed in a 1653 inventory of the effects of the powerful French Cardinal Mazarin, prime minister and virtual ruler of France. Mazarin owned more than 350 tapestries and prized this one among them.

Tapestries were generally more expensive, more valued than paintings; they served the dual purpose of insulating drafty rooms while beautifying them. For important tapestries, renowned artists would often draw the design, called a cartoon, which was then woven in specialized studios. By 1500 Brussels was the most important weaving center; the Mazarin Tapestry was probably made there although the artist responsible for the cartoon remains unknown.

The imagery depicted in The Triumph of Christ is derived from the Book of Revelation. In its whole, the composition shows three worlds united under Christ's reign -- pagan, Old Testament, and contemporary Christian. In the center, Christ presides over the religious and secular worlds, represented by officials of the church and state (probably contemporary portraits). On the left, the Roman emperor Augustus learns from the Tiburtine sibyl (the female prophet of the Tiber River) about a holy mother and child. On the other side, the story of Esther, who persuaded her husband to spare her people (the Jews), prefigures Christ's salvation of all mankind. If the tapestry was commissioned for a wedding, Esther and King Ahasuerus are likely to be contemporary portraits also.

The Triumph of Christ ("The Mazarin Tapestry")
c. 1500

MATERIAL: Wool warp, wool, silk, and silver-gilt and silver wrapped silk weft
DIMENSIONS: 341 x 439.4 cm (134 5/8 x 163 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Widener Collection

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