Throughout history, sculptors have worked in three dimensions to bring pieces of marble, bronze, wood and other materials to life. Since ancient times, sculpture has been a vehicle for understanding culture and society, whether from busts of great leaders or from symbolic representations of ethical principles.
When you stop to think about how many famous sculptures there have been throughout history, the list is endless. From the armless beauty of the Winged Victory of Samothrace to the great army of terracotta warriors built to protect the Chinese emperor, the function of ancient sculpture moves into modernity through the innovative work of Duchamp. However, the classical is always present, whether through the symbolic Statue of Liberty or Boccioni’s early 20th century sculptures inspired by ancient Greek art.
Below we will take a look at 15 famous sculptures to show the variety of styles that have captured the public’s imagination throughout history. Innovative, beautiful and often evocative, these works have stood the test of time.
The painted limestone bust, now in Berlin’s Neues Museum, is a beautiful portrait of Nefertiti, the great royal wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. Found in the workshop of an artist named Thutmose, its iconic representation made Nefertiti a symbol of the female ideal of beauty for centuries to come.
Stock photos from Bule Sky Studio/Shutterstock.
The collection of sculptures in Xi’an, China, represents the army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Among the terracotta figures are 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 670 horses. The figures are a great example of funerary art, as they were created to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The warriors were discovered in 1974 by some farmers who were digging a well about 1.5 kilometers from the emperor’s grave. Parts of the collection are part of traveling exhibitions around the world, and the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum has been on the World Heritage List since 1987.
Located in the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace or Nike of Samothrace is an iconic example of ancient Greek sculpture. Representing Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, this is one of the few existing Hellenistic sculptures that are originally Greek and not a later Roman copy. With her clothes clinging to her body, the goddess advances triumphantly as if she were on the prow of a ship leading the troops to victory. This is one of the most famous sculptures in history, which would later influence Umberto Boccioni’s unique forms of continuity in space.
Also located in the Louvre, the Venus de Milo is also known as the Aphrodite de Milos and is believed to represent Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The marble sculpture is 2.11 meters high and is known for its lack of arms. As limbs are always in special danger of breaking over time, it is not unusual for the ancient sculpture to no longer have them. The famous sculpture was discovered on the Greek island of Milos in 1820 by a peasant, who found it divided into two parts. The work has influenced artists of all times, including Dali, who created the Venus de Milo with drawers in 1936.
Almost 100 years before Michelangelo’s David, Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello created another iconic version of the biblical story. Cast in bronze, Donatello’s David looks younger and more contemplative, and he just killed Goliath. In fact, Donatello uses Goliath’s head and David’s sword as supports for the structure. The piece was surrounded by controversy at the time, as David is naked except for his boots, and was considered so naturalistic that it was disturbing. This early Renaissance sculpture has the distinction of being the first unsupported cast bronze sculpture, as well as the first nude male sculpture since antiquity.