One of the things I love most about working in bronze is its history as a sculptural medium. I feel my art is part of an unbroken story going back thousands of years and one that will continue thousands more into the future.
With that in mind I thought it would be fun to do a few blogs about bronze through the ages. This first one is a bit of an overview. Then as the mood takes me I’ll delve into some specialty areas.
Before we go much further let’s recall what the bronze alloy is made up of. Turns out it depends on where you are:
• In the US, most sculptural bronze is silicon bronze, consisting of 95% copper, 4% silicon, and 1% manganese
• European bronze typically contains 85% copper, 5% tin, 5% lead and 5% zinc
Due to the strength and durability of bronze, sculptures were often melted down for their content. Because of this, few original pieces remain even though many of the great artists throughout history cast with bronze at some point.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of bronze sculpture through the lens of four common Western eras:
The Greek Classical period (500 to 400 B.C.) is notable for the first bronze pieces that weren’t primarily utilitarian. In other words, they weren’t tools and weapons or, to a lesser degree, jewelry. The era is marked by Greek idealism and stylistic architecture. Two major bronze sculptures exemplify this time period.
The Discus Thrower by Myron in 425 BC captures the moment of tension right before the release of the discus. While the original statue by Myron has been lost, there are many copies still in existence, such as the Roman version shown here. (All images courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Boxer at Rest, sculptor unknown, is considered an example of genre realism or showing the generic image of a character in lieu of a specific person. It’s culturally significant because of the deep emotion shown on the character’s face. While most of the classical sculptures you see are white marble, more than half of all the work from the Classical period was bronze.
And if you’re curious, the bronze used during this period was 90% copper and 10% tin.
The Medieval period started roughly at the fall of the Roman Empire and ended at the fall of Constantinople (5th to 15th centuries). During much of this time there was a ban on figurative works in Europe, so very little bronze art was created there.
During this same period, however, bronze as a medium was growing in popularity in Chinese and Indian art. Typical subjects included images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. As the 7th-century example here shows, the treatment of the human form could be somewhat stylized.
Bronze sculpture in Europe made a strong comeback during the Renaissance in the 15th century.
Renaissance sculptors often had a background in goldsmithing and brought a new level of expertise to bronze sculpture.
Donatello’s David (circa 1440s) is one of the most well known pieces from this time and is considered one of the greatest Christian art pieces ever made.
And now we jump ahead to the modern period for sculpture, which is generally pegged to the works of Augustine Rodin in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Rodin portrayed the human figure faithfully (more so at the start of his career), but he departed from traditional subjects to focus on individual form and experience. “The Shade,” shown here, is a good example.
During this period of sculpture’s development, as in painting, sculptors broke away from figurative art into the creation of more stylized pieces, such as Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), famous for his bronze “stick figures.”
And of course, here in the 21st century, any form that can be imagined can be produced in bronze — from classic representation to pure abstraction. Come to the Sculpture in the Park show sometime and see for yourself.
That’s my quick trip through the history of bronze sculpture. It’s an epic topic that I’ve merely skimmed. I’m honored to be a small part of the story!