Listing the best or most famous of anything is really a dangerous game to play. It creates controversy, disagreement, and often even – for some reason – anger, and inevitably something gets left out.
Yet, in the world of sculpture, there are some works that really just define particular moments in art history and sculptural history. There are some that are just so important that they can’t be overlooked. And there are others that, although not hugely significant artistically speaking, are recognisable by everyone at a moment’s glance.
Indeed, the notion of ‘fame’ in terms of sculpture really sheds light on an interesting aspect of this art form. And that is that statues, sculptural works, carvings, and figurines are not limited to the realm of ‘art’. Artworks are not just innocently expressive works of beauty.
Rather, they perform important social functions. From prehistoric civilizations to antiquity, from the classical period to contemporary art, sculpture has always been about power, cultural and national identity, prestige, wealth and spirituality. And the success of these projects is paid testament to by the fact that we all recognise these images.
So, here we’ll consider the monumental works of public art. We’ll look at some of the most sophisticated achievements of the visual arts. And we’ll cover some of the important functions and ideas behind sculpture throughout history – from memorialisation to glorification, pure beauty to practical use.
Let’s take a look. Comment below if you think we’ve missed something – and no anger please!
The Great Sphinx of Giza (c. 2500BC)
Whilst not the earliest of ancient sculptures – with the sculptures and figurines of the Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic and from Mesopotamia – the Sphinx is one of the most recognisable sculptures to ever have existed. This statue from ancient Egypt is also one of the iconic images of the ancient world.
The sphinx is a mythical creature – with the body of a lion and the head of a human – and its face in this instance is thought to represent that of Pharaoh Khafre, who reigned between 2558 and 2532BC.
It’s thought to be both a figure for the worship of the sun. Yet, the fact that its face represents the Pharaoh shows the intertwinement of secular power and spiritual. Right from the beginning of sculpture, then, you see these colossal images being used for lots of different purposes.
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Statue of Zeus at Olympia (c. 435BC)
This one is a bit of a controversial one. Because, in the history of western art, this may be one of the most influential sculptures, but it is also one that we have never seen. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, this sculpture was apparently over forty feet tall and made of gold and ivory.
The statue was made in Ancient Greece, by the sculptor, Phidias, one of the most important names in Greek sculpture. His influence on the art world has been huge: he is considered one of the major influences on Hellenistic sculptural design – and his work influences all Greek and Roman art after him.
The figurative sculpture depicted Zeus – the king of the Greek deities – sat upon a large throne. The belief of the art historian is that the temple in which the statue sat was destroyed by fire in the fourth century – with the statue itself irremediably damaged.
Nike of Samothrace (c. 200BC)
Of all the masterpieces of ancient art that still survive, there are few that are more influential for the arts up until today. The Nike of Samothrace is a sculpture in the round depicting the Greek god of victory, Nike.
Today, it is headless. However, the sculpture represents the peak of figurative sculpture of the ancient art world. There are a huge number of replicas – in parks and the odd museum of art across the world – of this testament to the artistic skill of ancient civilizations.
And what makes it particularly interesting is that it is one of the few Greek sculptures that survives – rather than just a replica from Roman art.
In itself, it is a beautiful sculpture that makes the most of the three dimensions that characterise the form. Rather than mere reliefs, this sculpture engages with the space around it – in a way that wouldn’t happen again until the High Renaissance.
Lewis Chessmen (c. 1200)
The Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous representatives of the sculptural tradition that existed in Europe outside of the Romanesque tradition that led to the Italian Renaissance.
The chess pieces are beautiful examples of small sculpture, and are thought to have been by sculptors in Trondheim, Norway. However, they were discovered on the Scottish island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
Depicting the whole team of chessmen, the pieces are made of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth.
To modern and contemporary eyes, Michelangelo’s figure sculpture, David, may well be the most recognised representational piece ever to have existed.
In the period of Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo pushed the art of sculpture to its most beautifully naturalistic, elegant, and anatomically accurate.
Made of white marble, the statue was admired by artists and painters – and it influenced all types of outdoor sculpture and religious sculpture since.
A classicist in style, Michelangelo developed the ways of doing sculpture that would influence everyone up to contemporary artists. And if you don’t know this sculpture, you’ve got a lot to learn!
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Ecstasy of Santa Teresa (1652)
Capturing, and taking to their zenith, the Baroque principles of design, the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini rests in a church in Rome.
It has been a huge influence on modern art with its use of dynamism, characters in movement, and its engagement with its surrounding space.
It’s a bit of a controversial piece – as characterised in a famous Dan Brown novel – as there is something quite sensual about the position of the saint’s body.
Trevi Fountain (1762)
Remaining in Rome, the Trevi Fountain needs to have a place in this list. With its equestrian figures, gushing streams, and powerful swirling lines, this mammoth water feature is the most famous fountain in the world.
However, as this piece is not in an art museum or in one of the city’s cathedrals – but rather in the centre of town – it is often heaving with selfie-stick wielding tourists capturing its gorgeous whiteness.
It is a piece of public art, commissioned originally by the Pope, and the resulting designed was chosen through a competition. Again, this is sculpture used to show off prestige and power. Yet, given that the whole thing was influenced by the genius Bernini, it’s at least quite a stunning testament to wealth.
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1793)
One of our personal favourites in this list is the marble sculpture by Antonio Canova known as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.
Depicting the Greek gods in passionate movement, Canova’s statue is absolutely representative of the neoclassical – and emerging, Romantic – movements of his age.
It is famous for having no single preferred viewpoint – with action happening at all different perspectives.
You’ll find it in the Louvre - one of the world's most important sculpture collections - with pretty much everything else.
Statue of Liberty (1886)
In terms of sculpture as public art project, the Statue of Liberty is the most iconic, the most politically explicit, and obviously the most famous.
Stood on Liberty Island at the entrance to the docks of New York, this site specific work was intended to remind visitors and immigrants arriving by boat of the central values of the United States of America.
It is, quite frankly, absolutely colossal, and it serves more as a political statement than an actually nice piece of art.
However, as famous sculptures go, this is probably the most famous you’re going to get.
The Thinker (1902)
Probably the most influential sculptor of the last two hundred years, Auguste Rodin brought modernism into sculpture and developed the artistic language that would go on to influence all of the aspects of abstract sculpture and contemporary sculpture: kinetic sculpture, glass sculpture, architectural sculpture, landscape gardens, paper sculpture and the like.
Whilst Rodin himself didn’t experiment with medium and material as much as his successors would, his impressionistic style took the pompous posing out of the art for good.
The Thinker is his most famous work, depicting a man sat with his chin on his hand. And whilst, when we think of twentieth-century sculpture, we might immediately think more of Pablo Picasso and Brancusi, Rodin is where it all started.
Christ the Redeemer (1931)
Apparently, Rio de Janeiro’s famous image of Christ is one of the wonders of the modern world. We don’t know if it deserves quite this designation, but, as sculptures go, it’s pretty famous.
Standing high above the Brazilian city, this statue, like the Statue of Liberty in a way, communicates the values and ideals of the country in which it is placed.