Sculpture in the Twentieth Century

January 17, 2015 - March 01, 2015

The history of sculpture in the United States begins in the 1600s with the modest efforts of craftsmen who adorned gravestones, Bible boxes, and various utilitarian objects with simple, low-relief decorations.

Throughout the ensuing four centuries, American sculptors went through a variety of phases, beginning with a period of more ambitious carving on utilitarian objects, architectural elements, and on decorative adornments such as the figureheads on sailing ships.

Sculpture, as an end unto itself, did not develop until the young William Rush returned to his native Philadelphia from his training in England at the Royal Academy and became the country’s first famous sculptor and teacher.

By the end of Rush’s career in the 1830s, the next generation of notable American sculptors advanced their American academy lessons by studying in Italy, where they were trained to work in theNeoclassicstyle. It was thought that Italy “provided the proper atmosphere, brought the sculptor close to the great monuments of antiquity, and provided museum collections that were available to study.”Being in Italy also gave the artists access to experienced carvers who translated their clay works into marble.

Toward the end of the 1800s, American sculptors began to favor training in Paris where teachers such as Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux emphasized a more naturalistic and dramatic style.

All this changed by the end of World War I, as a high number of young European sculptors migrated to the free, booming American economy across the Atlantic. America promised new commissions and, more important, teaching jobs. European-trained sculptors working in America account for much of the great work created before 1950, including work byElie Nadelman,Gaston Lachaise, andCarl Milles (an example of his work is displayed in front of the Museum).

The 20th century was an age of experimentation with new ideas, new styles, and new materials.  Within just a few years, traditional sculpture education would almost completely be replaced by a European-influenced concern for abstract design. The passion for abstraction brought on a quest for new materials that could be used for sculptural expression. Plastic, glass, stone, chromium, and welded steel were used, as well as boxes, broken automobile parts, and pieces of old furniture.

Concerns for the qualities of forms and design continued – but usually without representing a human figure. Sculpture of the 20th century celebrated a continual exploration of the boundaries of what could be called art.

Form and space, reality, emotion, and perfect beauty are the interests of artists in all centuries. The 20th century only gave them new shape.