A deep dive into sculpture

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The Dying Gaul, circa 220 B.C., artist unknown. (vulture.com)

Sculpture is among the allied arts most closely associated with classical architecture. A set of stone figures along the cornice or flanking the entrance of a building is neither required of classicism nor exclusive to classicism, but it sure does reward the eye. So it was altogether appropriate that sculpture was discussed at one of this year’s two keynote lectures at the celebration of the Bulfinch Awards in April, sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Catesby Leigh, an art and architecture critic based in Washington, D.C., gave a lecture suffused with his characteristic depth of observation and insight. It was so far above my head that I have given up on the idea of conveying its main ideas. Having heard it in person and reread the text he sent me, I still doubt that I could distinguish a “pictorial” sculpture from a “dimensional” sculpture if I walked by an example of either type.

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St. George by Donatello, bronze copy of marble original dating to 1416.

The one type is limited by the sculptor’s reliance upon the limits of his eye, outlined by the play of light on a figure and its clothing; the other reveals a deeper understanding by the sculptor of the body’s interior makeup, which enables him to express its subject’s character with greater fidelity because he has a deeper knowledge of human insides. As Leigh tells it,

Over time, Greek sculptors realized that the pictorial nature of human vision was impeding their quest for a fully lifelike representation of the figure. They somehow internalized, as no artists had ever done before, the distinction between what we see and what is.

The Dying Gaul, a slightly larger than lifesize marble circa 220 B.C. by an artist unknown but possibly Epigonus, epitomizes the reach of sculpture’s progress. One of three copies in America is at the Redwood Library, in Newport, Rhode Island. The lengthy passage in which Leigh describes why it is considered so good must be one of the most exhilerating texts on art that I have ever read. Here is part of it:

Viewed from any angle, the sublime orchestration of anatomical forms contributes to the warrior’s powerful physical presence, heightening the emotional impact of his courageous bearing. Agony is indicated only by the Gaul’s bent head and the vigorous modeling of his furrowed brow. Energy suffuses his lithe body in defiance of death. The thrust from his left foot raises part of his rump slightly off the ground. The supporting right arm generates an opposing force, while the left arm perched on his thigh accentuates the upper body’s slight rotation. Deeply incised folds of flesh at the juncture of abdomen and pelvis also emphasize the abdomen’s lateral slide, like a tectonic plate, along the pelvis. The exquisitely articulated torso becomes the medium through which the contending forces are resolved into a state of equilibrium in tension. The warrior is thus suspended in time and space. Death is a moment away, yet we have no sense of imminent collapse.

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Caryatids near the Parthenon.

Perhaps this lack of any “sense of imminent collapse” suggests that even this advanced sculptural type can reveal only so much truth. Or it may just as well be the unknown artist’s expression of “Hellenistic humanism in its deeply moving ennoblement of a barbarian adversary” – who, perhaps, refuses to die. (Leaving aside the words “barbarian adversary,” this may perhaps bring to mind imagery from yesterday’s moving speeches at Normandy commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.)

There is much more about The Dying Gaul to come in Leigh’s lecture. For those intrepid enough to dive in with Leigh, I have added a PDF of his text at the end of this post, pending the inclusion, soon, of his taped lecture on the video page of the ICAA chapter website, where there are already other videos of past Bulfinch keynotes.

Leigh carries the fascinating story of the evolution of sculpture much further, from ancient times to the decline of figurative sculpture leading into the 20th century. The progress made by the ancients, he writes,

involved a sort of feedback loop between the development of the Greek sculptural canon and the Greek architectural canon. The classical architectural orders were originally conceived as articulating the support of massive weight in pictorial terms. … The clear hierarchy of parts the classical Orders manifest, starting with their division into base, shaft and capital and continuing on to the subordinate elements within each division, contributes to their legibility. … The Caryatids [the feminine columns of the Erechtheion near the Parthenon on the Acropolis] and their marvelous crowns are endowed with a structural clarity akin to that of the Orders and likewise read well from a distance, thus bearing witness to the historic interaction between sculpture and architecture.

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The Parthenon, in Athens. (holdinthedonut.com)

Please, reader, excuse my slant toward architecture in quoting from Leigh’s lecture. I cannot resist, especially when he describes some interesting features of the Parthenon. Here is a passage of thrilling description:

I’ve mentioned the feedback loop between classical sculpture and architecture, so I’d like to comment briefly on how this culminates in the architecture of the Parthenon. Like archaic statues, Greek temples, of which the Parthenon is universally recognized as the greatest, were quadrifrontal entities. The Parthenon, however, was situated on the Acropolis in a way that emphasized oblique rather than frontal views, allowing it to read more spatially. Architectural adjustments for optical effect, employed on earlier Doric temples, were applied with greater subtlety at the Parthenon. There were many such adjustments, but to cite just a couple, the slight doming of the Parthenon’s floor was accompanied by the rise of its entablature toward the middle on all four sides and the very slight inward tilt of its colonnades and walls—actually a diagonal tilt of a little over two inches in the case of the corner columns. The almost imperceptible swell or entasis in the shafts of the Parthenon’s columns—amounting to three-eighths of an inch on shafts 34 feet tall—conveys a subconscious sense of organic life while the resulting column profiles discourage the eye from a simplistic upward movement. While the Parthenon, like the Dying Gaul but at a much larger scale, acts with magnetic force on its environment, its columns’ inward tilt generates a tension—a countervailing outward thrust.

I have always preferred, as the explanation for entasis, the one Leigh adduces here that such swelling expresses the bulging muscles caused by the work of lifting performed by columns, as opposed to the one that suggests (as he also notes) it was meant to correct the slight errors in the optics of the eye as it perceives a building like the Parthenon. Yawn! He adds:

And even if it registers at the subconscious level, [such optical manipulation] further removes the Parthenon from the realm of commonplace experience and instills in the sensitive viewer a state of heightened awareness that the sculptural decoration, itself unsurpassed in Western art, could only reinforce. Such states of intensified consciousness are of course conducive to reverence and even awe.

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St. Teresa in Ecstasy. (Fine Art America)

Leigh describes the simplification of figurative sculpture in the medieval era, and then in the Renaissance a return to the highest of ancient practices, and then (if I am following him correctly) – … excuse me for a sec, but I cannot resist Leigh’s passage on Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy, which brings to mind his earlier comments on how the essence of the human body is revealed, or not, by the clothing into which it has been carved:

A classical figure should wear his or her vesture rather than vice-versa, but St. Teresa’s body is submerged in a theatrical pile of drapery that takes on a life of its own apart from the form underneath, with the deep folds creating spectacular chiaroscuro effects. Only the saint’s head, hands, and feet are exposed.

– … and then dips again with the advent of photography. Leigh has some pithy remarks on that:

Photography, which appeared on the scene around the time Rodin was born, played a decisive role in marginalizing the classical idea of the human figure as a thing-in-itself of great complexity—as an entity logically prior to the incidence of natural light though by no means worked out, as the design of drapery shows us, without regard to the effects of light. Thanks to photography’s influence, the figure was ever more relentlessly condemned, like everything else within the artist’s purview, to the status of an optical byproduct of reflected light, and academic training swiftly accommodated the new dispensation.

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Washington, by Houdon.

Leigh goes on to describe the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens as reflecting this trend away from the Renaissance revival of a deeper figurative sculpture; yet he draws attention to finer work: He praises Jean-Antoine Houdon’s “thoroughly classical” George Washington that stands in Virginia’s capitol at Richmond, which he calls, “pound for pound, the finest statuary monument in the United States.”

Of the long decline in the most expressive forms of sculpture, Leigh writes:

Needless to say, Bernini, Canova, and Saint-Gaudens were exceptionally gifted artists. There is a noteworthy common denominator in their work, however: the artistic methods they adopted were less demanding—requiring less time and labor in the design and modeling of the figure—than those espoused by the likes of Michelangelo and Houdon. But the more pictorial outlook they adopted was also the more natural outlook, given the mechanism of human vision.

Leigh concludes with the sad suggestion that we may never again see new sculpture that matches the level of artistic competence and beauty of the ancients or the Renaissance. He praises the work of certain traditionally classical sculptors of our time, but offers a parting shot that could hardly be surprising to those listening to him that Saturday in April at the Harvard Club before the Bulfinch gala. He concludes, however, with something more hopeful. I will conclude this post with the entire passage:

Modernists have long since concluded that, because photography has nature covered—which, of course, it doesn’t—classical standards of competence in the representation of nature are obsolete. To be sure, such standards could hardly be permitted to undermine modernity’s, or the modernist artist’s, self-esteem by the time Picasso burst onto the scene after the turn of the last century. But now more than ever, we have dire need of a pedagogy, both art-historical and strictly artistic, that gauges classicism’s unique significance.

We need a pedagogy that challenges pupils to understand an elementary truth that has sailed right by the privileged guardians of our cultural anomie: that in the final analysis classicism does not conjugate as a style, but rather as a distinct way of seeing nature—and the human figure above all—that is unique to Western civilization and has manifested itself in a variety of arts and artistic genres over a very long period of time, immeasurably enriching humanity’s cultural patrimony. We need a pedagogy that recognizes that to speak of classicism’s exceptional status is to speak with regard not only to the art of other cultures but also to the art of the West itself.

Because it involves a grasp of form that is unnatural in terms of the way we are hardwired to see the world, classical discipline is especially conducive to representing nature in a way that transcends our ordinary experience of the world. This doesn’t mean pictorial modes of perception are irrelevant to classical representation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point is that the classical standard, having its origins in the Greeks’ abiding awareness that what we see and what is are two different things, is not only grounded, first and foremost, in reality—but is also the key to the creation of what we might call an intensified reality, a higher reality.

Classical Except’sm Lecture 042719

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to A deep dive into sculpture

  1. David Andreozzi AIA says:


    Thank you so much for joining us at the 2019 Bulfinch Awards to present this wonderful keynote lecture along with David Rau. Both will posted soon on our New England ICAA YouTube channel. The link here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtn2aalEYz2LEFYIi_5cCHQ


    Very fondly,

    David Andreozzi, AIA
    NE ICAA President


  2. Steven W says:

    Catesby Leigh is a national treasure. His description and analysis of classical art and sculpture picks up where his mentor Henry Hope Reed left off. He “gets it.” That last passage is worthy of inscription on marble slabs in some suitable public place. The classical is a way of seeing, not a style, and it is not the entirety of Western art, but a critical part of it, but perhaps the most important and beautiful part. Thank you for helping to spread this message.


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