From classical figures to archetypes of the Old West,
artists’ sculptural cast bronze renderings enjoy universal appeal
For more information on figural bronze sculptures and more informative articles by Donald-Brian Johnson, order a copy of the new “Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2014,” available now from KrauseBooks.com and other retailers.
For the discerning (and deep-pocketed) collector, the acquisition of bronze figures is a tantalizing goal. They are difficult to come by, as many were produced in extremely limited editions. They are unique, representing the creative output of some of the world’s most renowned artists. And they are visually stunning, their intricate detail the peak of what can be achieved in metal artistry.
Bronze sculptures can also be a gamble, providing an additional collecting challenge (or thrill). Over the centuries, original bronzes have been so widely copied that even museums have been deceived. Prices can reach astronomical heights: “Friends Forever,” an Art Deco sculpture by Demetre Chiparus (Romanian, 1886-1947), depicting a maiden and two whippets, fetched more than $26,000 at auction. A thorough knowledge of the subject, and rock-solid provenance for each piece purchased, are absolute collecting requirements.
Bronze made its debut more than 4,000 years ago, during the aptly named “Bronze Age,” and first served as a utility metal. Rust-resistant and less brittle than iron, it proved ideal for tool-making.
However, even from earliest times, the decorative possibilities of bronze were also explored, the metal used as an architectural accent in temples.
The next step was creating bronze sculpture. The same lack of brittleness that created a demand for bronze tools was also a boon for the sculptor.
Bronze required less structural support than marble or stone. Deities and heroes, previously sculpted in majestic (and firmly grounded) seated or standing poses, could now be cast “in action.”
Fewer technical limitations meant that a greater fluidity of motion could be achieved.
Greater precision was also a bronze bonus; since the metal expanded while cooling, the artist was free to create extremely detailed molds, confident that each detail would be filled and fully realized during the expansion process.
Ancient bronze figurals have been found in locales as varied as the ruins of Pompeii, and the tombs of China. Neglected during the Dark Ages, bronze re-emerged as a sculptural medium during the Renaissance, favored by such artists as Donatello and Cellini.
The dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s again brought bronze figural sculpture to the forefront, championed by such masters as Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John Quincy Adams Ward.
Foundries could now cast “editions” of a bronze sculpture. Instead of a single work, each edition could result in hundreds of bronzes cast from the artist’s clay or wax original. The artist retained ownership of the original model and was free, as warranted, to permit another later edition to be cast. Parisian foundries proved particularly adept at casting bronze editions, attracting artisans from Europe as well as the United States.
Among the most desirable bronze figurals are those from the early 20th-century Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras. Still pricey, yet not in a museum-only range, these works often depict mythic or idealized female figures.
There are Chiparus’ dancing nudes surrounded by exotic animals, Madrassi’s wistful “Tree Nymphs” reaching to the heavens and abstractions given a physical presence, such as as Erte’s “Summer Breeze.”
These bronzes deliberately exude a sense of the other-worldly. The effect is often heightened by gilding, or by the addition of an outer patina: chemical reactions resulted in unique color changes, ranging from shades of brown, green or orange, to black.
Adding to the dramatic effect, the figures were often mounted on marble or stone bases, which also increased their stability.
Above all, bronze sculptures of the early 20th century are most definitely figures in motion. That sense of graceful movement is made possible by the fluidity of bronze. It’s the same elusive quality that attracted artisans in ancient times and continues to fascinate collectors today.