Art History Briefing: Bronze Statues’ Role in Art & Architecture

Bronze imparts a feeling of wealth & nobility when used in art and architecture. Bronze statues have historically signified gods and leaders from all cultures, adding to the regal impression one garners when studying them. The color and complicated material attracts artists, who could historically use it again once it corroded, melting it down to its original form for creating something new.

Historical Development of Bronze

This beautiful and unique alloy has a long and useful history; although bronze artistic works have been created for centuries, it was originally cast for tools and weapons, where the attributes of lightweight and sharpness were beneficial. Not only could it be cast in varying degrees of hardness, but its lifespan could be extended by melting it for recycling once its original purpose had been served. This led to the dawn of the Bronze Age, as casting techniques developed.

The first use of bronze for artistic pieces have been traced to Asia, where they mastered lost-wax casting. Its lightweight offered the opportunity for artists to create less formal, more natural-looking pieces which could represent living creatures more accurately. The prehistoric bronze sculpture, Dancing Girl, found in modern-day Pakistan, is regarded as the oldest bronze statue (or statuette due to its small size of 10.5cm). Not surprising, however, the Greeks were the first to master life-size bronze statues, although few still exist, indicative of the degrading nature of bronze and tendency to corrode. The Romans were slightly more successful in creating life-size statues of gods, politicians, and military leaders, some of which are still in existence today.

The Renaissance, along with the desire to create artistic pieces, being inspired by the classical antiquity of Greek and Roman cultures. Technological improvements allowed for the development of more sophisticated foundries where bronze could again be cast into varies works.

Key Features of Bronze

Metalsmiths likely dabbled in various alloys to find the right blend, using alloys like arsenic and tin. Although there were various formulations for specific uses, most artists and craftsmen simply used whatever they could get access to. The easily-found arsenic likely led to large incidences of arsenic poisoning and increased the popularity of tin.

Additionally, percentages were adjusted in trial-and-error, as blends were attempted over the centuries to find a good consistency, leading to “classic bronze” (10% tin) and “mild bronze” (6% tin). Several casting processes create distinctive works, including:

Sand Casting

The oldest method of casting bronze remains today due to its ability to allow for special shapes. A pattern for the shape of the sculpture is created and placed in a box (called a flask) and packed with sand (to which a binding agent has been added to harden it). Once the mold has cured and the pattern removed, the molten bronze is poured into the shape. After cooling, the sand mold is removed, and any finishing touches can be done.

Lost-Wax Casting (now called Investment Casting)

In his method, a full-size model of the sculpture is created, then a mold is made and a wax model cast from the mold. Modern applications of this type involve adding sprues, passages where the liquid metal is poured into the mold for more even introduction. Another mold is created over the wax, which prevents the liquid metal from being ejected forcefully from the mold with the melted wax, steam and vapor. After cooling, the mold layers are removed, and any defects are filed off and polished.

Centrifugal Casting

Used specifically for cylindrical shapes, in this method, the cylindrical shaped mold is spun around it axis while liquid metal is poured. The advantage to this method of casting is the more complete removal of impurities, while the shape and size are limited.

Continuous Casting

In this method, molten bronze is cast through a mold, using gravity to move the metal along. This is a more efficient method in terms of metal use, as less material is lost, creating a superior work. However, it requires significantly more metal and is therefore, costly, especially in larger applications.

Finishing Bronze Works

There are several methods for bronze finishing. In modern times, a sand blaster is used to create a smooth and shiny surface. “Patina” describes the color of the bronze, and can be created by heating the surface, and with the addition of corrosive materials after polishing. Specific chemicals produce various colors when applied to the bronze and heated up. The patina itself adds another layer of creativity to this work of art. Since bronze is porous, it must be sealed with wax or lacquer.

Modern Application

Use of bronze took on special significance in the United States. Without the technology, early Americans were unable to master the material.  In the mid 1800’s, as the United States rose to power, bronze began to represent the States’ rise in military confidence an economic strength, and there was a push to create foundries to conquer this art form. Lost-wax casting was re-introduced in the US, due to its aptitude to impart realistic details in the alloy.

As foundries flourished (in part due to their manufacture of munitions and other utility items), so did the availability of bronze for artistic use. The popularity of bronze items rose, and soon examples (and multiple casts of a single subject) could be found in exhibitions and galleries around the western world.

Famous Artists

Henry Kirke Brown (first American sculptor & father of artistic bronze use in America) was one of the most driven and skilled sculptors of the medium in the United States. He established a foundry in his studio, whose development aided in the growth of bronze use through the nation and worldwide. Among his works is the George Washington equestrian statue, located in New York’s Union Square Park, dedicated in 1865.

Auguste Rodin is considered the father of modern sculpture (1840-1917). He created works so real that early critics were shocked by the detail.  Over time, appreciation for his works grew with the growing interest in realistic works. His work The Thinker, is perhaps his most famous sculpture and represents raw human emotion. It has been cast many times during and after his death. Interestingly, Rodin must have favored this piece as well, as he chose this as his tombstone.

Famous Works

Other famous works in bronze are:

  • Venus & Cupid, Jacopo Sansivino ca. 1550
  • David, Donatello, ca. 1440. This was the first unsupported bronze cast sculpture.
  • Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni, This piece showcases the growing interest in the art world of the genre of Futurism, and the fascination with mechanization in the early 1900’s, which he hoped would bring artists and art collectors out from under the spell of classical art.

Bronze Still Relevant Today

Although many classic sculpture collectors may believe that the greatest bronze sculptures were created hundreds of years ago, it remains a creative medium for artists, one which can reflect a personal narrative and artistic style of today’s artists. With the availability of foundries and the affordability of bronze, sculptors have freedom to use the material easily to create a variety of works in all shapes and sizes. From small pieces to installation works (like Louise Bourgeois’ Maman Statue, 1999), bronze is still as fascinating and relevant today as it was thousands of years ago!

Sybaris Collection Bronze Works

The works featured in the Circus of Nature, A Bronze Collection, showcase and draw attention to the abilities of today’s sculptors to create detailed and expressive pieces in this ancient alloy, with a wide variety of subjects, methods and finishes. Sybaris is committed to promoting culture and heritage through creative works found worldwide.   By becoming a member of our Private ARTClub, discriminating collectors have access to our private events and shows, exclusive pieces, and additional value-added services. Let us curate a collection representing your unique style, taste, and budget.