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Release Date: September 9, 2002

Wall Text: New West Building Sculpture Galleries

Daumier’s Portrait Busts

From about 1832 to 1835, Honoré Daumier made painted clay busts (now at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris) as models for lithographs caricaturing members of the French parliament and other government officials. Daumier’s patron, the editor Charles Philipon, published the lithographs in his satiric journals La Caricature and Le Charivari. By daring to present the officials as foolish and corrupt abusers of power, both men risked fines and imprisonment. The busts were not cast in bronze until the mid-twentieth century. The National Gallery of Art owns one of the rare complete sets of all thirty-six bronzes.

The Lost-Wax Process
(Steps 1 through 6)

1) The sculptor creates a model, which is generally made of clay, marble, stone, or wood. Sometimes, as in this display, a plaster cast from an original in one of these materials may serve as a model for casting in bronze.

2) An impression of the model is made in a bed of very fine, elastic material supported by a rigid outer mold. The supportive outer layer is designed to withstand the pressure of melted wax running through the mold.

3) This sharply defined mold is used to create a fireproof clay model, identical to the artist’s original model.

4) The surface of the clay model is scraped in order to reduce it by the desired thickness of the final bronze.

5) The mold is placed around the clay model and closed; wax is then poured into the space between the model and the mold. This stage is crucial in producing a perfect reproduction of the initial sculpture. The result is a wax model that is finished by hand to ensure fidelity. The artist’s signature, a cast number, and a foundry seal are also incorporated.

6) Wax conduits, called sprues and gates, are attached to the model. They act as channels through which the wax, when heated, will escape.

The Lost-Wax Process
(Steps 7 through 11)

7) A finely granulated ceramic is gradually applied to the surface of the model and its conduits until the applied ceramic material becomes thick and coarse. The end result is called an investment mold (from the French investir, “to surround”). The mold is then dried and heated; melted wax now flows from the mold and leaves a space between the fire resistant clay model and the investment mold. Thus this technique is called the lost-wax method.

8) The investment mold is then heated to a high temperature and covered with a coating, which must be completely dry before bronze pouring begins.

9) When poured into the cavity of the mold, molten bronze fills the space left by the wax model. The mold is broken and the metal appears: the figure and its conduits are an exact reproduction of the wax figure.

10) The conduits are then cut away so that no trace of them can be seen. This procedure of hand-finishing the bronze to perfection is called chasing. Remains of the fireproof clay model left inside are now removed through an opening left in the bronze.

11) Upon completion of the chasing, metal oxides or other chemicals may be applied to the surface of the bronze. They create a thin layer of corrosion--usually brown, green, or blue in color--which is called the patina.
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Renaissance Bronzes from the Robert H. Smith Collection

The Renaissance admiration for the world of classical antiquity found one of its highest artistic expressions in bronze sculpture. Statuettes of the gods, goddesses, and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome were eagerly collected by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century patrons schooled in classical literature and mythology. The art of antiquity and a new interest in nature also encouraged the production of bronzes depicting spirited horses and animals in combat.

These works of sculpture filled a demand stimulated by excavations of ancient bronzes, which remained too rare to satisfy the widespread craving for them. Princes, clerics, scholars, and merchants collected bronzes to enjoy privately at home and show to their guests. The possibility of making several casts of a clay or wax model allowed favorite designs to be reproduced and sent as diplomatic gifts between princely courts.

The creation of bronzes challenged the skill and imagination of Renaissance sculptors. The medium allowed them to demonstrate their mastery of the human figure at rest and in action, often in difficult, spatially complex poses. Bronze casting, an exacting process, required skillful modeling of the original clay or wax design and subtle treatment of the bronze after casting. Sculptors applied organic compounds, metal oxides, and lacquers to the golden brown, copper-based metal so as to give the finished bronze a rich and lustrous surface.

The works of sculpture shown here include fifty bronzes lent by Robert H. Smith. They represent a selection from one of the most important collections of European bronzes in private hands. The Smith collection includes exceptionally fine works by major contemporaries and successors of Michelangelo. Several of the Italian sculptures come from the Florentine studio of Giovanni Bologna, whose bronzes attracted the patronage of the Medici grand dukes and princely courts throughout Europe. Complementing these works are statuettes from Venice, its environs, and from northern Europe that also portray themes inspired by the art of antiquity.

Sculpture by Degas

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), celebrated as a painter and draftsman, also made sculpture throughout his life. He worked with soft materials such as wax and clay, which permitted constant revision as he studied various movements and poses. Eager to experiment, he combined colored wax with plastilene (non-drying modeling clay) and supported his figures with wire armatures often left visible on the exterior. As x-radiographs show, he sometimes built up his forms with household objects, including corks, wicks, and nails.

The only sculpture Degas ever exhibited, in 1881, was Little Dancer Aged Fourteen --Wax Statuette, which he dressed in real cloth and hair (on view in the adjacent gallery). Except for the Little Dancer, Degas kept these sculptures in his studio, showing them only to visiting friends and colleagues. The artist talked of casting his sculptures in bronze, but never committed them to that “material for eternity.” After his death in 1917, about 150 wax and mixed media statuettes were discovered in his apartment, many of them disintegrating. His heirs made the decision to have 74 of them cast in bronze. The casting went on at the Hébrard foundry in Paris from 1920 until the mid-twentieth century, producing the posthumous Degas bronzes that can be seen in many museums.

Sixty-nine original sculptures in wax and mixed media survived the casting process. These were acquired by Paul Mellon in 1956 and 1958. Beginning in 1985, Mr. and Mrs. Mellon gave the National Gallery of Art 49 Degas waxes, 10 bronzes, and 2 plasters. Most of these are on view here, in the largest group of original Degas sculptures to be seen anywhere in the world.

Renaissance Medals and Plaquettes

Although inspired by Roman coins, the portrait medal is a Renaissance creation. Usually much larger than coins, medals resemble them in being double-sided. A profile portrait with an inscription identifying the sitter appears on the front (the obverse), while the reverse bears a symbolic composition related to the sitter's ideals, status, or achievements, with an explanatory Latin motto or phrase.

First produced by Pisanello in the 1430s for humanist patrons in the north Italian courts, medals became popular throughout Italy in the later fifteenth century, and spread north of the Alps in the sixteenth century. They were used as diplomatic gifts or tokens of friendship and often commemorated events such as a marriage, a victory, the taking of office, or the construction of a building.

Renaissance plaquettes are small relief sculptures, usually of bronze, with subjects typically from Greek and Roman mythology or Christian imagery. They might serve as pendants or hat badges, as decoration for an inkstand, or as a pax held up for the kiss of peace during Mass. For the most part, they were valued as fine, miniature works of art, relished by connoisseurs who desired to participate in the intellectual and visual world of classical antiquity. Emerging in the second quarter of the fifteenth century in Florence and Rome, plaquettes reached their finest expression in Central and Northern Italy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In Germany, France, and the Low Countries, they achieved new refinement in the early seventeenth century. Like Renaissance prints, plaquettes helped to spread classicizing imagery and the designs of major artists throughout Europe.

The National Gallery of Art owns a distinguished collection of Renaissance medals and the finest series of Renaissance plaquettes in the world. A representative selection of each is on view in these galleries.

Sculpture by Rodin

Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) pushed the conventions of sculpture beyond previously accepted rules of finish and anatomical correctness. His fiercely expressive treatment of the human figure and of sculptural material has led to comparisons with Michelangelo, whose achievements he sought to emulate. At the same time, his broken, roughly finished surfaces have been compared to the impressionists’ innovations in painting. He broke new ground in presenting fragmentary figures as complete works of art.

To a greater extent than any artist before him, Rodin authorized the production of his sculptures in a variety of sizes and media (plaster, terracotta, bronze, and marble). He modeled his conceptions in clay or wax with his own hands and then had plaster casts made of them. In a practice customary for his time, Rodin employed specialists who used the plasters to enlarge, reduce, and cast his sculptures in bronze or to carve them in marble.

Rodin’s works became so popular that some of them -- including The Thinker, The Kiss, and A Burgher of Calais (Jean d’Aire), all originally designed as parts of complex public monuments -- were veritable best-sellers. Today these are widely disseminated in collections around the world. The examples in the National Gallery of Art, mostly gifts of Mrs. John W. Simpson, are almost exclusively productions from his lifetime.

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