Marble Sculpture in the 18th and 19th Century

Marble Sculpture in the 18th and 19th Century

Prized for its luminous, smooth surface, homogenous milky-white color, and texture soft enough to carve intricate detail but strong enough to resist shattering, marble has long been the desired medium for fine art sculpture. Both 18th- and 19th-century artists working in the late-Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles created timeless sculptures and monuments that dazzled their contemporaries using this beloved stone. These marble sculptures continue to captivate art-loving audiences and even draw demand from collectors today. For the latest updates and exquisite examples of art, we invite you to follow along with Joshua Kodner Galleries!

From Stone to Sculpture

What is marble? Marble is a metamorphic rock derived most commonly from limestone or dolomite rock. The white marble coveted for sculpture is a pure form of this rock, absent of veins or mineral impurities like iron oxides or clay. Some of the finest marble, used for many statues in the 18th and 19th centuries, was from Carrara, Italy.

Carving marble is a reductive process whereby the artist or sculptor removes parts of the marble block to create their finished work. Typically, an artist would begin by creating a maquette, a scaled-down wax or clay model, of what the finished work will be. The artist or their workshop would then apply an outline of the work to the block of marble, marking the areas that need to be removed using a mallet and chisel.

As the sculpture’s shape is revealed, new tools are applied to refine the shape, such as the claw chisel, rasp, and riffler. The finished work would then be polished to the artist’s taste. This method of carving marble remained largely the same from its origins in antiquity until the invention of power tools in the 20th century.

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A Transition of Styles

Beginning in the early 18th century, artists were transitioning away from the dominant Baroque style of the 17th century. Artworks during this period showcased exaggerated movements — like outstretched, contorted bodies— to heighten the dramatic details of a story or emotions in the piece. These techniques were popularized and immortalized by the great Italian marble sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

One such transition style was called the Rococo style, an offshoot of Baroque. While Rococo adopted Baroque’s hallmark elements of drama and movement, Rococo artists heavily favored more elaborate ornamentation, asymmetrical forms, and more serpentine lines rather than bold diagonals. Their subjects were usually more lighthearted and playful, embracing themes of love or youthfulness. While the style was immensely popular in France and Venice, it was used more in architecture and painting.

By contrast, the Neoclassical style was a direct reaction against the Baroque period. Its name suggests a “new” take on classical art from Ancient Rome and Greece. The style emphasized order, symmetry, and simplicity over the dynamism and complexity of the Baroque period.

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Famous Sculptors & Their Masterpieces

France was undoubtedly the epicenter of the art world during this time, producing and training some of the most well-known marble sculptors. Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) was such an artist. He worked in the neoclassical style and was famous for creating portrait busts and sculptures of politicians and important thinkers from the Enlightenment. His bust of Benjamin Franklin (1778) was one of the first portraits representing a prominent American.

Perhaps one of the most famous sculptors of this period was the Italian artist Antonio Canova (1757-1822). He revived classical, elegant compositions and excelled at sculpting cold, hard marble to resemble warm, soft flesh. His Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1793) and his Venus Victrix (1808) are two prime examples of his work. Canova’s sitter for the Venus Victrix was none other than Emperor Napoleon’s sister Pauline Buonaparte. The artist shows her reclining semi-nude on a sofa, embodying the Greek goddess Venus holding the apple of victory awarded to her by Paris.

For the first time, there was also a great deal of artistic influence and exchange between Europe and the newly-formed United States. American sculptors such as Hiram Powers (1805-1873), Horacio Greenough (1805-1852), and Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) received critical acclaim both at home and abroad. Powers’s Greek Slave (1843), a full-sized sculpture depicting a young Greek woman stripped of her clothing, shackled, and placed at a slave market by her Turkish captives, was one of the most well-known and popular American sculptures of the 19th century.

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Auction Buyers and Sellers

If you’re considering selling or purchasing an 18th- or 19th-century marble sculpture, your best option is to use a reputable auction house with highly trained professionals like those at Joshua Kodner Galleries. We regularly host auctions where you can participate in person at Dania Beach, or you can place a bid on one of our online bidding platforms. You can be assured that every item is genuine and worthy of the purchase at Joshua Kodner Galleries. For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact us. Visit our blog for the latest news and trends.

Photo Credit: Antic Store