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Famous French Sculptors Who Changed the Course of Art History

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October 12, 2016
Alias of Ksenija Pantelić

Famous French sculptors were crucial for the experimentation with the traditional art materials, such as clay, marble, and bronze. Along with the famous Italian masters, these French artists are at at the center of sculpture production and are responsible for the most thought-provoking and revolutionary ideas regarding three-dimensional creativity. Reflecting each significant movement of art history, French art is at the forefront of intellectual and artistic life[1].

The development of sculpture, until the avant-garde movements of the 20th-century, owed much to the traditional modeling. Stone sculpture, marble and small models aided the artists in producing some of the most mesmerizing examples of pure mastery. In the hands of the most skillful sculptor, the cold materials were given warmth and life.

At the beginning of the 20th-century, approach to art needed to change. The revolutionary ideas reflected the world in transit, especially in the progressive France of the era. Traditional sculpture, rooted in realism, gained its twin. The abstract sculpture was born, blurring the border between life and art, often erasing the traditional approach to materials. The following artists on our list, represent some of the most successful names of French sculptors who have helped to forever change the face of the sculpture.

   Editors’ Tip: Cast in Bronze French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution

As a complete study of the art of bronze sculpture in France from the 16th to the 18th-century, the book takes its readers on a journey through the extensive production of the time. From the age of enlightenment, period of the Louis XIII to Louis XVI rule, to the discovery of technology, bronze sculpture holds an important place for French sculptors. Covering the vast creativity, reflected in portrait, stately monuments, or in the produced religious artifacts, major sculptors are presented. The production of Coysevox, Puget, Prieur, Houdon and some lesser-known figures, such as Rancy, the Chaligny brothers is discussed in the essays of the book. Along with the texts, beautiful illustrations bring the vivid sculpture making of the time to the spotlight.

Featured image in slider: Auguste Rodin – The Thinker. Image via

Have a look at some of the most important French sculptors who have helped shape a new understanding towards three-dimensional production

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Jean-Antoine Houdon - The Famous Portraits

The neoclassical sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, was famous for his portrait busts and statues of philosophers, inventors, and political figures of the Enlightenment. His most successful works are studies of Voltaire, George Washington, and Napoleon. Not especially celebrated during his lifetime, he has since become the most famous French sculptor of the 18th-century. The replicas of his statues have been employed by the French Academy of Fine Art for teaching anatomy to students and as models for the engravings used on numerous U.S Postage Stamps of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century.

Featured image: Jean-Antoine Houdon – Portrait of George Washington. Image via

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Clodion - The Love of Small Scale and Terracotta

Clodion, original name Claude Michel, is seen to represent the quintessence of the Rococo style sculpture. Similarly, to his contemporary Houdon, Clodion studied the classical monuments and figures. Much celebrated for his small-scale statues and reliefs inspired by the antique, Clodin preference resulted in his denial to the Royal Academy. Working mostly in terracotta, his subject matter included the mythological figures of nymphs and satyrs. Alongside his brother, Clodion also used his talents to decorate various objects such as candelabra, clocks, and vases. After the revolution, the sculptor moved to Nancy where he, in the end, adopted the monumentality of the Neoclassical style.

Featured image: Clodion – Left: Three Graces / Right: Zephyrus Flora. Images via

Auguste Rodin - The New Face of Sculpture

At the time of great change in the rhythm and way of life, Auguste Rodin offered a new face to sculpture. Taking away the hard outline of traditional production, Rodin approached sculpture in a realistic style. Taking a leap from an idealized human form of the past, Rodin stripped away many narrative references to the classical myth that were still attached to the academic sculpture of the late 19th-century. Instead of focusing on the representation of gods or muses, Rodin opted for the celebration of the lifelike figures distinctly reflecting the newly shaped attitudes of love, thought, and physicality. Producing rougher, more unfinished surfaces, Rodin mirrored the constant motion of the modern times[2].

Featured image: Auguste Rodin – The Kiss. Image via

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Edgar Degas - The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer

Edgar Degas was never truly interested in displaying his sculpture publicly. Yet, the changing of his mind for the occasion of the sixth Impressionist Exhibition represents the famous exception in art history His sculpture The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer shocked many of Degas contemporaries, while Joris-Karl Huysmans referred to it as “the first truly modern attempt at sculpture I know”. Modeled in wax and wearing a real bodice, stockings, shoes and tulle skirt, the sculpture was criticized for the unconventional choice of materials and its realism that some judged as brutish.

Featured image: Edgar Degas – The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. Image via

Marcel Duchamp - The Found Object

The art’s story could not be told if the French artist Marcel Duchamp is not mentioned. As a revolutionary figure, Duchamp is considered as one of the most influential artists. His focus on the idea or a concept above the choice of the material resulted in the original idea of the sculpture as an assemblage object. His famous readymades best illustrate this view which Duchamp shared with the rest of his avant-garde contemporaries. Sculpture no longer needed to be made with the use of traditional modeling and the move from tradition resulted in the birth of abstract sculpture.

Featured image: Marcel Duchamp – Readymades – Left: Urinal / Right: Bicycle Wheel. Images via

Jean Arp - The Organic Sculpture

As one of the most experimental authors of the 20th-centry, Jean Arp is best known for his biomorphic sculpture. Associated with avant-garde movement, especially Dada, and Surrealism, Arp experimented with plaster, stone, and bronze. Due to his wavy line, Arp often referred to his three-dimensional work as an organic sculpture[3]. Introducing the reference to nature, erased of any representation, but as an abstract form, Arp was one of the leading figures helping to form non-representational sculpture. Embracing chance and spontaneity as important components for artistic process, Jean Arp influenced numerous abstract artists that followed.

Featured image: Jean Arp. Image via beretandboina.blogspot. com

Jean Dubuffet - The Line and Low Art

Challenging aesthetic borders through experiments with materials and style, Jean Dubuffet was one of the most influential French artists. Both painter and sculptor, Dubuffet’s practice focused on the research into the more authentic and humanistic approach to art making. Embracing ‘low art ‘, and being recognized as the founder of the Art Brut, his three-dimensional works followed his research in painting. Evolving from a chance event, and a doodle while on the phone, the rough drawing of black lines stands at the core of his celebrated practice. Known as cells, such abstraction Dubuffet successful transformed into sculpture and some of the most recognized public art pieces.

Featured image: Jean Dubuffet – Artwork. Image via

Cesar Baldaccini - Thumbs Up!

Standing at the forefront of New Realism movement is the work of the French sculptor and painter, Cesar Baldaccini. Best known for his assemblage art and innovative large-scale abstract sculpture, Baldaccini was an active member of the Parisian world of avant-garde art. His compressions, often using scrap metal or squashed cars, are an innovative approach to junk art. Often bordering with the notion of kitsch art, Baldaccini is both loved and detested by the French cultural establishment. Even though he produced some of the most disturbing self-portraits, his production is considered to still be more humorous and witty. His most celebrated piece, La Pouce, is a 40 feet replica of his thumb.

Featured image: Cesar Baldaccini – La Pouce. Image via

Louise Bourgeois - The Power of the Subconscious

Exploring themes of domesticity, sexuality, and her childhood French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is considered as one of the leading sculptors of the 20th-century. Through the use of abstract form and a wide choice of materials, Bourgeois dealt with issues concerning universal balance, juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. Transforming her experiences, much of it reflecting traumatic childhood, Bourgeois’ personal visual language referenced mythological and archetypal imagery. Using objects such as spiders, spirals, cages, and medical tools, her work symbolizes the feminine psyche. For this French sculptor, art making was a therapeutic or cathartic process.

Featured image: Louise Bourgeois – Maman. Image via

Niki de Saint Phalle - Color Celebration

The colorful, patterned, and crafted in a variety of shapes and sizes, Niki de Saint Phalle’s female figures, known as Nanas, celebrate her own feminist spirit. This French sculptor, painter, and filmmaker is yet another artist on our list that was a part of the New Realism movement. Her work was also associated with the feminist work of the 70s art period as well. Her colorful figures, reflect the worlds of Mondrian’s grids, and Matisse’s fauvism movement, yet hold darker secrets that reflect the acceptance of one’s body and anxieties of being a woman.


  1. Brownell, W.C., French Art Classic and Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, Tredition Classics, 2012
  2. Froment, J.,L., Manipulated reality: Object and image in new French sculpture, University of California, 1985
  3. Eaton, D., C., A Handbook of Modern French Sculpture, Read Books, 2009

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Niki de Saint Phalle – Sculptures Nanas. Image via