Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

American Relief Sculpture

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Relief sculpture—sculpture that projects in varying degrees from a two-dimensional background—has a distinguished history dating back over 20,000 years in Eastern and Western cultures. Alto-relievo (high relief) approaches three dimensions while bas-relief (low relief) at times is more akin to two-dimensional drawing. Some of the finest examples of relief sculpture—the Parthenon frieze for the Athenian Akropolis (449–432 B.C.) or Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise (1426–52) for the Baptistery of Florence—were executed in conjunction with architectural programs. While this practice continued in nineteenth-century Europe and America, especially on civic buildings, reliefs were popular as an independent art form. They serve as funerary markers (26.120) and as subsidiary panels on the bases of outdoor commemorative sculptures. Also executed on a domestic scale for private patrons, relief portraits and ideal subjects (drawn from history, mythology, literature, or the Bible) were considered desirable alternatives to the standard in-the-round busts or statues.


Also executed on a domestic scale for private patrons, relief portraits and ideal subjects (drawn from history, mythology, literature, or the Bible) were considered desirable alternatives to the standard in-the-round busts or statues.

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Relief sculpture was introduced to the United States by Italian sculptors working on the decoration of federal government buildings during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Exposure to this art form continued during the next several decades as American sculptors flocked to Italy, a font of artistic tradition and the primary source of inexpensive marble and labor. Thomas Crawford, William Henry Rinehart (1985.350), Edward Sheffield Bartholomew (1996.74), and other American artists built their reputations by producing idealized in-the-round statues for an international clientele while executing portrait busts for steady income. They modeled reliefs less frequently, usually focusing on ideal subjects. They looked not only to the classical past for inspiration but also to Neoclassical sculptors, especially Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, whose crisply treated reliefs enjoyed great esteem in both Europe and the United States.

While these expatriate sculptors and their European mentors popularized relief sculpture in marble, the American Neoclassical sculptor most adept—and prolific—at the technique was Erastus Dow Palmer, who was based in Albany, New York. His training as a cameo-cutter developed his proficiency in this difficult art form. Palmer's elegant array of portraits and idealized subjects (1986.85) inspired a younger generation of Americans working in a waning Neoclassical style, including his assistants Charles Calverley (04.38.2) and Launt Thompson. Another American-based sculptor, Henry Kirke Brown, who studied in Italy between 1842 and 1846, fostered the transition from Neoclassicism to naturalism and from marble to bronze. In his bronze high-relief medallions of American founding fathers (2004.44), he pursued a realist aesthetic in which textural variation, strong modeling, and a truthful likeness were paramount.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was America's undisputed technical innovator in relief sculpture. Like Palmer, he trained first as a cameo-carver, mastering delicate cutting in shell and stone. In the late 1860s, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, assimilating fluid modeling skills and creating a style that blended polish and freedom. Encouraged to "paint a bas-relief" by the American artist John La Farge, Saint-Gaudens produced a captivating group of portraits of artists and friends in Paris in the late 1870s (12.76.4; 1994.50; 2002.445). Executed for pleasure, not profit, these intimate low-relief bronzes introduced his trademark compositional devices: vertical formats, profile portraits, decorative inscriptions, and individualizing attributes. These works reflect the influence of contemporary French sculptors Henri Chapu and Alexandre Charpentier, as well as such masters of the Italian Renaissance as Antonio Pisanello. After returning to America in 1880, Saint-Gaudens accepted orders for portrait reliefs to supplement his income from public sculpture commissions. The designs of the 1880s and 1890s exhibit impressive variety, from dazzling sketchlike compositions to those that effortlessly integrate high and low relief (12.29; 12.76.1; 17.104; 1976.388). Long before his death in 1907, Saint-Gaudens' profound contribution to relief sculpture was evident in the work of his students and admirers, prompting further experimentation and refinement.

Like Saint-Gaudens, Olin Levi Warner enrolled at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in the late 1860s. He also served briefly as an assistant to Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, the innovative sculptor of the high-relief group The Dance (1869) for the Paris Opéra. After establishing himself in New York in the 1870s, Warner produced a group of medallions that ranked him as a premier relief artist. His modeling style is assertive: in his circular pieces, attention is focused on high-relief portraits rendered against unadorned backgrounds (98.5.3). Use of inscriptions is minimal, except those employed for monumental effect, such as in his Native American portraits (06.313) executed in 1889 and 1891. Warner's reputation is based almost exclusively on his forceful bust and relief portraits, since he produced few public works during his brief career.

By World War I, sculptors pushed the limits of relief sculpture beyond traditional portrait and ideal subjects by employing innovative techniques, diverse materials, and modernist forms.

Thayer Tolles
Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art