In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sculpture: Method, Practice, Theory

  • Introduction
  • Overviews, Surveys, General Reference
  • Journals, Series, and Electronic Resources
  • Foundational Texts
  • Sculpture and Painting
  • Animation
  • Iconoclasm
  • Color
  • Sexuality
  • Race

Art History Sculpture: Method, Practice, Theory
Martina Droth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0125


What is sculpture? There is little consensus on how to answer this question. On the one hand, sculpture takes its place alongside painting as a fine art, at the top of the hierarchy that has traditionally undervalued other forms of art. Unlike painting, sculpture has had to work hard to maintain this exalted place because of its close affiliation to craft and decorative art. Holding onto its distinctions has been a major preoccupation in the scholarship; consequently, the historiography is strongly inclined toward sculptures that appear to manifest creative autonomy and individuality of expression—that is, sculpture ostensibly made as art. This formulation of sculpture is European in origin and grounded in the assumed superiority of the classical tradition. On the other hand, a second, much broader definition holds that sculpture potentially refers to any fabricated object which projects into physical space, regardless of its original function, place of production, and whether or not it was referred to as sculpture by the culture that produced it. This has made it possible to extend the category of sculpture into all global cultures from prehistory to the present. If appearing to contradict the Eurocentric fine art narrative, this definition is nevertheless based on a similar principle: the prioritizing of formal, aesthetic qualities over cultural meanings and functions. Sculpture may now appear to comprise a global and inclusive field, but the European and, later, North American master narrative remains largely in place as an organizing principle for any cultural manifestations of sculpture: that is, when artists, art historians, curators, or critics bring objects from other cultures into the narrative, they frequently do so under the conditions of European sculptural standards, and within disciplinary, institutional, and ideological frameworks that remain Eurocentric. This has been a way for art history to marshal an unruly, unquantifiable, and global array of objects into a set of familiar taxonomies, often entailing the occlusion of the cultural specificity of objects made outside its terms. In recent decades, this persistent, inbuilt pattern of assimilation has come under increasing pressure, in particular by the adoption of new perspectives into art history—interdisciplinary methodologies drawn from fields such as anthropology, sociology, material culture, or material religion. While this bibliography acknowledges these directions, its emphasis is on European and North American historiography, reflecting sculpture’s development as an academic subject since the 19th century. The bibliography thereby focuses on key concepts, theories, forms, and methods of sculpture as they developed within the predominant European perspective. It highlights the conceptual frameworks that have shaped sculpture into recognizable art historical subjects, and concludes with recent interdisciplinary approaches that take the study of sculpture into new directions. It considers historiographical trends and represents key concepts that span across time, showing their inherent connections, and bringing to light the predominant ideas that give sculpture structure and definition as a discrete field. Some citations were chosen because they played an important role in shaping the field, while others engage analytically with the historiography, or conceptual and theoretical issues. Collectively, this resource offers a critical tool for approaching sculpture—from Antiquity to today—as an art historical subject, and for understanding how the priorities of art history have both constrained and enlarged its scope.

Overviews, Surveys, General Reference

Systematic chronological and geographic surveys of sculpture as a unified field have a limited historiography. They flourished in the 19th century, with the development of art history as an academic field, but dropped off after the mid-20th century. The early surveys are important historiographical documents in their own right, aligning sculpture to the emerging proclivities of art history. Commonly, the survey traces a narrative of sculpture’s rise and fall and identifies its most evolved form with the art of ancient Greece (Lübke 1872, Marquand and Frothingham 1896). Broadly following the theories of Winckelmann (see Foundational Texts) and drawing upon a limited corpus of objects, makers, and places, surveys naturalized the European authority of sculpture, resulting in a narrow synthesis of its history. Even books that incorporated sculpture made by indigenous cultures in Oceania, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, tended to remain indebted to this structure (Bazin 1981, Butler 1975). The survey went into decline with increasing specialization which in effect splintered single chapters into monographs, thereby establishing newly independent sub-fields of sculpture. The survey was further undermined by the globalization of art history, which rendered the subject too broad to be effectively condensed into a linear format. The critical and historiographical legacy of the survey is examined by Harrison 2009.

  • Bazin, Germain. A Concise History of World Sculpture. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1981.

    By longtime chief curator of the Louvre. First published in French in 1968, and translated into several European languages. Later editions expand the 20th-century material, but without alteration to the main text. Thus, the 1981 edition contains views about primitivism and “Negro art” that recall an earlier era of scholarship.

  • Boström, Antonia, ed. Encyclopedia of Sculpture. 3 vols. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

    Three-volume encyclopedia which offers key names, concepts, techniques, materials, and all major periods and cultures. Low-quality black-and-white illustrations. Especially useful for subject headings, but less useful as a guide to artists since it adds little to standardized information available online.

  • Butler, Ruth. Western Sculpture: Definitions of Man. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.

    Opens with a photograph of the Venus of Willendorf held in the hand of sculptor William Tucker—this speaks to Butler’s idea that sculpture across the ages is connected by its roots in primal human impulses. Thematic and chronological.

  • Curtis, Penelope. Sculpture: Vertical, Horizontal, Closed, Open. London and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

    Unusual survey structured according to sculpture’s common forms, orientations, and functions, suggesting surprising connections between works of different times and cultures.

  • Duby, Georges, and Jean Luc Daval. Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Cologne: Taschen, 2002.

    Condenses an earlier French edition into one volume. Over 1,000 pages and hundreds of illustrations. The most comprehensive chronological survey available today, covering all expected European and North American traditions. Lacks table of contents, index, and bibliography, but offers good scholarship by respected art historians.

  • Dürre, Stefan. Seemanns Lexikon der Skulptur: Bildhauer, Epochen, Themen, Techniken. Leipzig: Seemann, 2007.

    Single-volume encyclopedia of around 1,300 short entries addressing terms, concepts, artists, and writers. Interspersed with thirty-one longer entries on key issues. Especially useful as a guide to obscure specialist terminology in the German language.

  • Harrison, Charles. “Seeing Sculpture.” In An Introduction to Art. By Charles Harrison, 173–291. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

    A conception of sculpture based on the human figure. Considers the traditional European historiography while offering an alternative global history. Addresses concepts and theories that complicate sculpture’s status in distinction to painting. Also see Harrison’s “Objects in Transition” in the same volume (pp. 292–319).

  • Lübke, Wilhelm. History of Sculpture: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Time. Translated by F. E. Bunnètt. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1872.

    First published in German, 1863. Among the earliest books to offer a comprehensive history of sculpture separated from the larger history of visual arts. Lübke believed an overemphasis on Greek art had resulted in scholarly neglect of important areas of Christian sculpture.

  • Marquand, Allan, and Arthur L. Frothingham. A Textbook History of Sculpture. New York: Longmans, Green, 1896.

    Early example of a textbook by two professors of art history at Princeton. Shows how sculpture was taught as an academic subject. Includes a bibliography and list of addresses from which teachers could order photographs and casts of sculptures for the classroom, showing that reproductions of sculpture went hand in hand with teaching in a growing educational market.

  • Read, Herbert. The Art of Sculpture. A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, vol. 3. New York: Pantheon, 1956.

    Influential study that presents an evolutionary theory of sculpture, culminating with the artists Read most admired (Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, to whom the book is dedicated). Considers sculpture as a “primitive impulse” that connects objects from different times and cultures. Shows Read’s interest in Jungian psychology.

  • Wittkower, Rudolf. Sculpture: Processes and Principles. London: Allen Lane, 1977.

    A European history of sculpture from Antiquity to the 20th century focused on sculptors’ processes. Holds that great periods of sculpture (esp. Renaissance) were the result of traditional practices; conversely, 19th-century methods are linked to sculpture’s decline.

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