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.


MAZZUOLI : A Nereid
DANTI : Descent from the Cross
16TH CENTURY : Venus and Cupid
 

As Christ's body is lowered from the cross, mourners support the Virgin, near collapse under the weight of grief. Viewers are meant to feel the same harrowing sadness, and Danti uses the high relief of the foreground figures to intensify this response. Nearly in the round, their awkward, off-balance poses are accentuated to convey in a physical way the wrenching force of emotion.

By contrast, the two thieves crucified with Christ nearly merge into the background, the crosses only incised on the surface. It is easy to understand these lines as drawn through the soft wax model from which the bronze was cast. The minimal chasing and polishing that was done after casting leave the pliant textures and immediacy of the modeled wax. In this regard, the Descent is a demonstration of virtuoso technique -- as most bronzes would require more treatment to correct casting flaws.

Christ's body has the elongated, elegant proportions of mannerist works -- a style that emphasized self-conscious artifice over naturalistic depiction. Mannerism, sometimes viewed as a reaction to the clarity and unity of the High Renaissance, can also be seen as a natural extension of it, for example in the emphatic modeling of Michelangelo, whom Danti himself cited as his greatest influence.

VINCENZO DANTI
Descent from the Cross
c. 1560

MATERIAL: Bronze
DIMENSIONS: 44.5 x 47.1 cm (17 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Widener Collection
ACCESSION NUMBER: 1942.9.111


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