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The History of Clay Sculpture

Aesthetic form began as the reddish-brown earthen substance that first captured the noble existence of man. After thousands of years, the form has risen to embrace the light abstract idea that now dignifies a wise eminence. An art piece in clay exemplifies a composed feeling. The role of a sculptor's hands has progressed from molder of man to forger of the abstract idea.


Terracotta, "baked earth," was used in cultures that predate history. A vivid realistic body is seen in the clay figure "Venus of Willendorf" dated 24,000 to 22,000 B.C.. By ancient times, a clay figure was a rude resemblance. The "Woman with Raised Arms" from 7th century B.C. reveals a character content in a place above society. The ancient peoples found established ritual significance in immortals embodied in clay form.


Clay works validated the order decreed by rulers and priests in a strict hierarchy. The ideal for a civilization ruled by immortals was represented in the elements of classical form that express either politics or religion. Unity in the Greek statuette of Nike from late 5th century B.C. expresses the classical idea of purity. In the "Heraion" temple dedicated to Hera, the harmony of pomegranates and a pine cone holds prosperity.


Terracotta rose to a golden distinction during the Renaissance. Man was freed from the burden of a supreme hierarchical order. In clay, the artists recognized the new place of a citizen in a sculptural form that could be seen by all. With a belief in humanism, artists replaced the duty that held form rigid with a beauty that made sculpture generous. After Michelangelo Bounarroti gained attention by working in clay as a pupil in Bertold's school, he demonstrated a devotion to the true human subject. Works by Luca della Robbia affirmed the naturalism and a new charm. His painted terracotta sculptures had a prevailing brilliance in character and colors with a permanent freshness.

Neoclassical and Enlightenment

At the end of the 18th century, the order of civilization again captured the artist's attention. At the same time, a sculptor was enlightened by reason on the importance of self. Perfection in an ideal observance of authority was balanced with a regard for the nobility of a prominent citizen. Antonio Canova created the definitive elegant forms that flourished when viewed. A characteristic tendency of figures moved the Rococo style of Clodion.


Form is again free. Culture known by a citizen with a noble significance in society is the center for a graceful idea. A novel shape displays a national civic duty seen from the perspective of the citizen. Modern artists now attempt the beauty in proportion of the whole to express a pure abstract idea. In the early 1890s, Rodin set in the "Head of Balzac" an eternal beauty for ordinary life and a psyche made public. For the "Rosita" statuette, Aristide Maillol shaped the artistic human form by smoothing natural bodily forms into a formal subtle beauty that lives as a type.

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