The 10 most famous sculptures in history

Since antiquity, sculpture has been an integral part of our world and has risen to the rank of the most “noble” arts. The discipline has known, over the centuries, advances, revolutions and the arrival of great masters who have reinvented its vocabulary.

Statue, statuette, sculpture or figurine, three-dimensional works have taken on countless shapes, sizes and functions. Artists have redoubled their inventiveness to find new methods of production and the discipline has become one of the most expressive mediums in the history of art. Preserved in museums, erected on historic sites or in public spaces, the sculptures bear witness to the path traveled by humanity and, for some, still conceal many mysteries. A look back at 10 of the most famous works in the world.

The Sphinx of Giza, Egypt

Unknown artist, The Sphinx of Giza (3rd millennium BC), Giza, image © MusikAnimal via Wikimedia

The Sphinx of Giza has watched over the pyramids not far from the Egyptian capital for more than 4,000 years. We still do not know the author and the sponsor, if there was one, as well as the real function of this feline creature with the head of a pharaoh. Historians attribute its manufacture to Chephren, one of the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, whose head would be the portrait, or to his father, Cheops.

The limestone rock that constitutes the work would have been left in abundance during the extraction of the material for the construction of the pyramid of Cheops. The Sphinx remains the largest monolithic monumental sculpture in the world.

The Venus de Milo, Louvre Museum

The Venus de Milo, late 2nd century BC, Louvre Museum, Paris, image Dion Hinchcliffe via Wikimedia

The two oldest representations of the human body date from the Lower Palaeolithic and feature female forms. These two works were baptized after the goddess of love, Venus, symbol of feminine beauty par excellence: the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Lower Austria, and the Venus of Hohle Fels, from the Swabian Jura.

Nevertheless, the most famous depiction of the deity is an armless marble statue from the Hellenistic period (336-30 BC). The work was discovered by chance by a farmer on the Greek island of Milos in 1820. The Venus de Milo entered the Louvre thanks to the French ambassador in Constantinople (Greece was then part of the Ottoman Empire) , who was able to acquire it for the Parisian museum. 

The Moai, Easter Island

Moai at Ahu Tongariki, 1400-1600, Easter Island, image © Rivi via Wikimedia

As enigmatic as the Sphinx of Giza, the Moai are colossal statues that have made Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean world famous. The Moai, a term meaning “stone figure” in the Polynesian dialect of the inhabitants of the island, are on average 4.05 m high and weigh 12.5 tons. The majority of these monoliths are sculpted in tuff mainly from the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano.

They were erected in a row on the ahu , ceremonial platforms built for this purpose, by the matamua, former inhabitants of the island, to honor ancestors. Today, 638 Moai can still be admired on Easter Island, although once there would have been over 1,000. In the 17th century, the 500-year-old Moai tradition came to an end with the decline of Easter Island culture.

Michelangelo, David, Florence

Michelangelo Buonarroti, or Michelangelo, David, 1501-1504, image © Jörg Bittner Unna via Wikimedia

In 1464 a commission was made to Agostino di Duccio to sculpt the giant figure of a prophet for the exterior of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Duccio extracts and roughs a block of marble from the quarries of Carrara, but he gives up after three years before the magnitude of the task. After another attempt by Antonio Rossellino, the block remained for forty years in the cathedral workshop, half worked.

In 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo and the Arte della Lana (the most important trading and banking house in Florence in the 14th century, linked to the weavers) to create a monumental statue of the biblical hero David in the block. Three years will be needed to sculpt what will be the first monumental statue of the Renaissance. The David , 5.17 m high, stands upright in its simplest form.

At the insistence of Michelangelo, David is installed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio and takes the place of Judith and Holofernes by Donatello (which joins the interior of the Palace), and becomes the symbol of Forence, this City-State then threatened on all sides by powerful rival states.

Jérôme Duquesnoy, Manneken Pis, Brussels

Jérôme Duquesnoy, Manneken Pis, 1619, Brussels, image © Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.

Day after day, many tourists gather in front of a fountain in the Belgian capital to watch a 61cm bronze statue urinate. Manneken Pis , representing a naked little boy, was created in 1619 by the Brussels sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy to adorn one of the many fountains that supplied the city’s inhabitants with drinking water. Originally conceived as a simple “joke”, the Manneken Pis is today the most famous symbol of the inhabitants of Brussels, it also personifies their sense of humor and their independence of spirit.

The Manneken Pis also has his own wardrobe: he sports themed costumes for various occasions. The oldest evidence of the tradition of dressing the statue dates back to 1615 and today there are 950 garments in its wardrobe.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, Rodin Museum

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1880-1882, image © Valentin B. Kremer

In the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris, on a stone pedestal, you can admire the masterpiece of the man who is considered the father of modern sculpture . The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, was originally part of a commission for the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and was to depict Dante before the gates of Hell, meditating on his poem. The 1880 commission never came to fruition, but Rodin spent the rest of his life working on this theme.

Featuring a naked man symbolizing the universality of thought, the work was first exhibited independently in Copenhagen in 1888, then becoming The Thinker (instead of The Poet) . Rodin took as a model the boxer Jean Baud, with whom he also worked on other works.

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, Statue of Liberty, New York

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, Statue of Liberty, 1875-86, Liberty Island, New York City, image © William Warby via Wikimedia

As many immigrants arrived in New York Harbor beginning in the late 19th century, Liberty Island, a small island off the coast, seemed like the perfect location for a statue symbolizing liberty. In 1871, at the request of Édouard Lefebvre de Laboulaye and the Franco-American union, the French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi made his first trip to the United States to personally select the site where the Statue of Liberty would be installed. .

After collecting donations from both sides of the Atlantic to finance the project, Freedom Enlightening the World (the real name of the work) was born. For the statue, Bartholdi imagined a Greek goddess wearing a seven-pointed crown, holding a torch in her raised hand. On October 28, 1886, the “Lady Liberty”, on its 93 m high base, was inaugurated.

Edvard Eriksen, The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

Edvard Eriksen, The Little Mermaid, 1913, Langelinie promenade, Copenhagen, image © Avda Berlin via Wikimedia

She sits peacefully on the waterfront in Copenhagen: The Little Mermaid is a statue from the fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. The 125cm tall bronze work was made by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen , who attempted to capture the torment of the mermaid torn between her world and that of humans.

The sculptor used three different models for his work: the sculpture of Henry Chapu Joan of Arc listening to his voices for the pose, his own wife for the naked body, and for the face, that of the ballerina Ellen Price , who had embodied the little mermaid in a ballet.

Henry Bacon & Daniel Chester French, Lincoln Memorial, Washington

Henry Bacon & Daniel Chester French, Lincoln Memorial, 1915-22, National Mall, Washington, DC Image © Jeff Kubina via Wikimedia

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, sits solemnly in a Greco-Dorian style temple with sweeping views of the Washington Capitol. Work on the temple began in 1915, on the 50th anniversary of the death of the head of state.

The temple, whose 36 columns symbolize the 36 states that existed during Lincoln’s tenure, was built to a plan by Henry Bacon. The 5.80 m high statue inside is the work of American sculptor Daniel Chester French. Like Michelangelo’s David, the sculpture is made of white marble, but was not carved from a single block. Indeed, unlike the work of the Renaissance master, the statue of Lincoln is made up of 28 different blocks. 

Heitor da Silva Costa & Paul Landowski, Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro

Heitor da Silva Costa & Paul Landowski, Cristo Redentor, 1922-31, Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Chensiyuan image via Wikimedia

Since October 12, 1931, the statue Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) watches over the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Brazil’s independence, in 1922, the Brazilian civil engineer Heitor da Silva Costa was put in charge of the project. He appealed to the Franco-Polish sculptor Paul Landowski for the manufacture. After five years of work, a 30 m statue in reinforced concrete in the Art Deco style was born. Corcovado Mountain, which rises 710 m above sea level, was chosen as the site and allows Christ the Redeemer to look over the city and Guanabara Bay to the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain.

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