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Bronze Sculpture

Learn the history of bronze sculpture and how it has evolved.

Bronze sculpture has been a way for artists and their patrons to celebrate and immortalize famous figures from history. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Bronze sculpture has been a way for artists and their patrons to celebrate and immortalize famous figures from history.

Since the Bronze Age (3500-2000 BCE), bronze sculpture has been a popular form of artwork. Ancient men discovered that bronze, a compound of copper and tin, created a hard and enduring medium for their art. Over the centuries, bronze has been used in such items as weaponry, tableware and jewelry, but it is the legacy of bronze sculpture that has stood the test of time.

Making Bronze

According to the University of California, Davis, bronze is an alloy composed of copper, tin and arsenic, with the bulk of the bronze comprised of copper. Bronze is stronger than copper and was once an ideal replacement for copper tools and weapons. Hammering bronze makes the metal even harder. The use of bronze in the days before the actual Bronze Age was often accidental, as craftsmen were unaware of the high tin and arsenic levels in the copper nuggets they found.

To make bronze, copper alloy is smelted -- extracted from stone using a high heat -- and heated to a liquid form. The bronze is then shaped by molds, cooled and hammered into its final design. The development of harder bronzes arose from the elimination process performed by those early metallurgists.

The Lost-Wax Method

Lost-wax casting is the most common technique in sculpting bronze. As explained by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this casting method is an ancient art that was used in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans.

The process begins by sculpting a piece in wax. Wax is used because it picks up every detail and does not remain in the actual finished product. The wax art is covered with clay, layer after layer, until the piece is thick and strong. The piece is then heated in a kiln, which melts away the wax and hardens the clay mold. Molten bronze is poured into the clay mold and left to cool. Once the metal has set, the clay is broken off until all that remains is the bronze cast.

Despite its beauty and ability to recreate intricate details, the lost-wax method, like most bronze work, is costly and time-consuming. It requires a steady and diligent hand as well as a firm knowledge of working with ceramics and metals. The slightest change in temperature can drastically alter a cast bronze piece.

Noteworthy Sculptors

There are a number of craftsmen and artists whose work in bronze is still celebrated today. Bronze work peaked during the Renaissance, when a number of artists used the medium to recall the best of the past while putting their own influence on the world of art.

Since the 15th century, bronze sculptors have continued to make their mark on art in both Europe and America. Famous bronze sculptors include:

Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), an Italian sculptor famous for the "Gates of Paradise" on the baptistery doors of St. Johns in Florence, which was completed in 1424 after 20 years of work
Donatello (1386-1466), an Italian artist considered the master sculptor of the Renaissance, whose famous works include "David," a bronze statue constructed for the leading Italian family, the Medicis
Giambologna (1529-1608), a Flemish artist who worked extensively in Italy and whose pieces include "Flying Mercury" and "Apennine," a 30-foot sculpture and the largest piece of its era
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), an Irish-born American artist known for his monuments of national figures, including the Adams memorial and the Shaw memorial
Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886), an American sculptor who was among the first to create bronze sculptures of Western figures
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), a French artist famed for his bronze piece "The Thinker," whose work was inspired by his previous experience carving stone as well as the work of another famous bronze sculptor, Michelangelo
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), an American painter and sculptor whose bronze work concentrated on Western themes and the depiction of horses

The above list is just a smattering of the large number of artists who worked in bronze. Many famous artists experimented with the medium during the course of their career. Pablo Picasso and Edward Degas are two of the many painters who attempted to produce their art in bronze.

Bronze Sculpture Today

Modern bronze sculptors in America often still use the lost-wax casting method, and bronze statues continue to punctuate the nation's landscape. Recent notables in bronze sculpture include the "Charging Bull" located on Wall Street in New York. The piece was created by Arturo Di Modica in 1989 and was placed it in its current location without permission from the city. Its popularity made it a staple of the financial district. Another recent bronze work is the "Behold" sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., which was created by Patrick Morelli in 1990 for King's wife as a monument to King's inspirational life.

Throughout history, bronze sculpture has been a way for artists and their patrons to celebrate and immortalize famous figures from history, politics and folklore.

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