Working in three dimensions, throughout history sculptors have worked to shape marble, bronze, wood, and other materials into incredible forms. And from our earliest times, sculpture has been an important way to understand culture and society, whether from portrait busts of great leaders or symbolic renderings of ethical principals.
When you stop to consider famous sculptures through history, the list is endless. From the armless beauty of the Venus de Milo to the great army of terracotta warriors built to protect the Chinese Emperor, the function of ancient sculpture moves toward modernity through groundbreaking work by Duchamp. And yet, the classical is always present, whether it be through the iconically symbolic Statue of Liberty or Boccioni’s early 20th-century sculptures taking queues from ancient Greek art.
We take a look at 15 famous sculptures through history to show the variety of art that has captured the public’s imaginations. Groundbreaking, beautiful, and often thought-provoking, these works have withstood the test of time.
15 famous sculptures that have become iconic pieces of history:
Bust of Nefertiti by Thutmose (1345 BC)
This painted limestone bust, now in the Neues Museum in Berlin, is a beautiful portrait of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. Found in the workshop of an artist named Thutmose, his iconic rendering made Nefertiti a symbol of ideal feminine beauty for centuries to come.
Terracotta Warriors (late 3rd century BC)
This collection of sculptures in Xi’an, China depicts the army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Counted among the terracotta figures are 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses. The figures are an incredible example of funerary art, created to guard to Emperor in the afterlife. They were only discovered in 1974 when farmers digging a well happened upon them in a location almost 1 mile from the Emperor’s tomb. Portions of the collection are often part of traveling exhibitions around the world and the mausoleum in Xi’an has been a World Heritage Site since 1987. The works have inspired everything from 3D sidewalk art to pizza dough sculptures.
Nike of Samothrace (c.190 BC)
Located in the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace or Nike of Samothrace is an iconic example of Hellenistic Greek sculpture. Depicting Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, it is one of the few remaining Hellenistic sculptures that is a Greek original and not a later Roman copy. With her clothes clinging to her body, the goddess triumphantly moves forward as though on the prow of a ship leading troops to victory. One of the most famous sculptures in history, it would later influence Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.
Venus de Milo (c.130 BC)
Also located in the Louvre, the Venus de Milo is also known as the Aphrodite of Milos and is thought to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The marble sculpture stands 6 feet 8 inches tall and is known for its missing arms. As any limbs were in peril of breaking off over time, it’s not uncommon for ancient sculpture to be missing their limbs. The world famous sculpture was found on the Greek island of Milos in 1820 by a peasant, who discovered it fractured into two pieces. The work has long influenced artists, including Dalí, who created the Venus de Milo with Drawers in 1936.
David by Donatello (1430-1440)
Almost 100 years before Michelangelo’s David, Italian Renaissance sculptor Dontaello created another iconic version of the Biblical tale. Cast in bronze, Donatello’s David is younger and more contemplative, having just slain Goliath. In fact, Donatello cleverly uses Goliath’s head and David’s sword as supports for the structure. The sculpture caused a scandal at the time, as David is nude except for his boots, and was considered so naturalistic it was disturbing. The early Renaissance sculpture has the distinction of being both the first unsupported bronze cast sculpture, as well as the first freestanding male nude since antiquity.