The Sculptor Is the Least of Artists

That’s what the painters used to say when the debate about sculpture and painting was on.

Michelangelo was both a painter and a sculptor. Here are two of his famous works: the painting of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and his marble statue of Dusk in the Medici Chapel at Florence.

Michelangelo’s Adam (public domain photo)

Dawn by Michelangelo (source here)

The painters spoke from a very high horse. They said things like:

The sculptor copies the most, abstracts the least.  He does no more than transform an already great and suggestive object—the stone.  He needn´t create light or color or mass or perspective on a figure; he need only turn it like the moon to catch the sunlight.

Yes, he is the least, the very least, of artists, the one who understands least about art.  Unable to comprehend that the aesthetic impression is a spiritual thing, he needs something to TOUCH.  He is the artist with the smallest imagination, for he needs a MODEL for each of the works of his mind.  No retentive power.  No aptitud for imagining in three dimensions.

Among artists he is the blue-collar worker.  His work is hard and dirty.  He needs his whole body to cut out a figure, while a painter´s stress is all mental, all intellectual. The sculptor uses up his vital energy in the struggle with his material.  Yet ultimately his goals are the same as the painter´s: a spiritual effect through illusion.

The price he pays in work and time to achieve his effect is just too great, or anyway out of proportion. He actually WASTES his time carving.  He should use it to draw and to model—his intellectual or aesthetic contribution stops with these.  The “work” is usually not the big stone but his little plaster or wax model for it.   Putting his mind to sleep while slaving for long hours over the hard stone is IRRESPONSIBLE of him. He should have someone else copy his model in stone for him; he should do no more than what only he can do: the final chisel-work.

Michelangelo spent—Michelangelo WASTED— whole years of his life in the quarries of Carrara and Pietrasanta looking for good blocks to carve. What IS the job of the sculptor?  How much of his time should he spend gathering materials, sharpening tools, building scaffolds, making frames and supports?  Is it right that he tire himself out on the initial roughing out of his figure in the block?  Is that sculpture—that stage of the project?  There is no aesthetic judgment required here, is there?

Now the sculptor, by his nature, didn´t care for talk of this sort.  He listened politely to the big gang of haughty painters  and then turned away and got back to work.  He worked until he surrendered late at night.  In a way, he was the deeper of the two artists—his love for his work had to be greater.  Why?

Because he had to hold out through many reproductions and losses of his figure while always keeping his ideal in mind.  One by one he would lose his original figures as he converted them into more permanent material—clay to wax or plaster to wax again (if for a bronze figure) or stone.  Dozens of times along the way he would see other options and be tempted to change his original idea.  Each time he would be invited to question it, to re-evaluate it, to give it up.  But he held out. Perhaps he understood the fleeting nature of beauty better than the painter.  He must have been the greater lover.

See Sculpture vs. Painting and Bernini on Sculpture vs. Painting. Also this comment on the disadvantages of sculpture compared to painting.


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, painting, sculpture, stone carving and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Sculptor Is the Least of Artists

  1. kseverny says:

    wow, painters were very arrogant back then

  2. Not so much arrogance, I think, as picking an ancient fight, originally contested between sculpture and rhetoric — as told by Lucian in his autobiographical dialogue, the Dream (2nd century CE). Renaissance painters merely shifted the argument from rhetoric to painting to their advantage.

    In his Dream, Lucian pictures two women quarrelling over his future:

    “One of them seemed to be a working woman, masculine looking, with untidy hair, horny hands, and dress kilted up; she was all powdered with plaster, like my uncle when he was chipping marble. The other had a beautiful face, a comely figure, and neat attire. At last they invited me to decide which of them I would live with; the rough manly one made her speech first.

    ‘Dear youth, I am Statuary — the art which you yesterday began to learn, and which has a natural and a family claim upon you…. If you will come and live with me, I promise you wholesome food and good strong muscles; you shall never fear envy, never leave your country and your people to go wandering abroad, and you shall be commended not for your words, but for your works.

    To which the beautiful woman replies:

    ‘And I, child, am Culture, no stranger to you even now, though you have yet to make my closer acquaintance. The advantages that the profession of a sculptor will bring with it you have just been told; they amount to no more than being a worker with your hands, your whole prospects in life limited to that; you will be obscure, poorly and illiberally paid, mean-spirited, of no account outside your doors; your influence will never help a friend, silence an enemy, nor impress your countrymen; you will be just a worker, one of the masses, cowering before the distinguished, truckling to the eloquent, living the life of a hare, a prey to your betters.

    Read the whole Dream at


    • 100swallows says:

      Thank you very much, Judith. If I had known of this essay I’d long ago have posted on it. The translation reads very well. Is it by the very Fowler who wrote Modern English Usage?

      So those proud Renaissance painters turned themselves into rhetoricians, did they? What cheek!

      For Lucian sculpture is simply a handicraft, and the hardest kind of manual labor. I’m surprised that sculptors had any status at all and that Lucian wasn’t ashamed to say that his uncle was one.
      It is a pity that the uncle who boxed his ears wasn’t a painter, so we’d have Miss Picture’s view on things and the easy arguments against hard physical work couldn’t have been used. Basically Culture’s are about social and educational advantages, not about Art.

      It was great to see and recognize all those references to the ancient Greeks (Socrates the former stone-cutter, Xenophon and his dream, the famous sculptors).

  3. Ken Januski says:

    “So those proud Renaissance painters turned themselves into rhetoricians, did they? What cheek!”

    I’m far more a painter than a sculptor and for arguments sake I tend to take the painters say in discussions such as these. But I’ve always liked sculpture and wish I had time for it, as I used to when a student.

    Nonetheless I’m surprised to find at the end of reading this post and comments that I’m really far more sympathetic to the hands on sculptors than the painters with their rhetoric.

    I’m not quite sure how much artistic license you’ve taken in portraying artists Swallows but as I read the post I couldn’t help but think about contemporary art, where rhetoric seems to have been in the ascendancy for decades. I find it wholly tiring. Maybe time to go back to the hands on work of sculptors?

    I don’t mean to hijack the thread here but I also have to think of wildlife artists, of which I’m slowly becoming one. There is so much cliche in wildlife art and so many undiscriminating patrons I think, but I think that for many wildlife artists and their audience there is a real similarity to the sculptor-type that you describe. Many good wildlife artists are just trying to do workmanlike art, painting what they see and love. But that counts for nothing in an art world that demands a huge edifice of rhetoric in order to be considered seriously. I think that full 90% of the people I went to graduate school in art with, both in California and New York, would fall off their chairs if they knew I was now doing wildlife art. It is so ‘corny”!!!!! Almost as bad as being a sculptor.

    As I said I know this is a personal interest of mine, and not completely on topic. But I couldn’t help but see the similarities to your sculptor/painter dichotomy.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Hijack all you want. Wildlife artists are welcome here. Your old classmates must have been corrupted by the rhetoricians.
      But let me say that I meant “rhetorician” in the old sense.
      Lucian had to choose between going to college and starting an apprenticeship—or rather, he had to choose between apprenticeships: his dad was too poor to send him to college. Remember that rhetorics was a college education in those days, though it specialized in public speaking. Anyway, I thought it was cheeky of the Renaissance painters to claim that they were the learned party. In fact, though they worked more comfortably, they were just as ignorant as their fellow craftsman, the sculptor, and just as low in social rank. They both had to pick up their knowledge in workshops and by conversation with educated patrons. The artist needn’t be an educated man, of course. And ars being longa, he will have little time for learning. “I’m not trying to become a mind,” a sculptor friend used to tell me when I corrected his reasoning. “I’m trying to become an instinct.” Of course, as instincts, they should often keep their mouths shut. Is that what you meant?

  4. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    Thanks for that explanation. I didn’t understand that use of ‘rhetoric’, so misconstrued what you and Judith said.

    I think what I was trying to say is that many artists, or at least their publicists, seem embarrassed by instinct, and maybe by the workmanlike origins of art. So they instead are trying to ‘become a mind,’ something I think they do poorly and with a lot of silly pretension. In that sense I’m with your sculptor friend and I guess with whoever realizes the ‘lowly’ origins of art.

    I don’t really mind the accomplished artists who also has a lot of theory to spout, or maybe in your words ‘an instinct’ who should keep his mouth shut. What drives me nuts are the artists, and more likely the publicists around them, who really don’t trust instinct and think that real art is based on words and explanations. ‘My art does this and that, bridging the gap between this and that, challenging the expectations of this and that, etc., etc.’

  5. erikatakacs says:

    Yes, a sculptor doesn’t care for talk of this sort, turns his/her back and goes back to work. :)
    The Greeks believed Hephaistos made the first woman of clay, and how appropriate that sounds to a sculptor. Each time you start on a new figure you feel like God as the new “life” emerges from your hands. Does a painter feel the same intoxicating pleasure? His/her two dimensional figure will always stay flat to the touch. Isn’t he/she a skilled illusionist after all? :)

    • Ken Januski says:


      I think the painter does feel the ‘same intoxicating pleasure’ though I can really only speak for myself. For me though it’s not so much in painting as it is in sketching. You look at something, draw a few lines or brush marks and all of a sudden a blank piece of paper or canvas has a three-dimensional, almost living object on it. It’s like a magic trick.

      Yes it is a skilled illusion, but I think illusion is one of the most fundamental appeals or art, for the most knowledgeable connoisseur or the man on the street. So to me that is a plus not a minus. To me sculpture also creates an illusion though of a 3 dimensional sort. But still no one confuses sculpture with the real thing, hopping on a sculpted horse and rudely surprised when it doesn’t go anywhere. So at least to me it also is an illusion, too, just of a different sort. But I’m sure it does feel a bit different to have something in your hands that is just a lump of clay or whatever and then suddenly a human or horse.

      I used to think that throwing a pot had the same sort of magic. You sit at a potting wheel with a wet lump of clay spraying little bits of mud all over the place. What a mess. Then out of the blue it transforms itself into a magical, symmetrical vessel. I didn’t throw pots for long, just like I didn’t do sculpture for long, but I never lost that sense of magic about it.

  6. Rich says:

    Those were the times…later painters probably had a less haughty attitude. For instance Meissonier, Von Stuck, Renoir amongst others, and of course Degas, who turned to sculpture in his late years.

    By chance I just came across an entry of a German writer’s diary which also elaborates on the two/three dimensional figure. He had been presented a pencil sketch by a sculptor who told him a sculptor’s drawing could be distinguished from a painter’s at first sight.
    The author proceeds with the reasoning that the sculptor may possess an instinctive relation to the third dimension, a spacial orientation nearer to the origins than the optical. He tries to prove his theory by comparing a blind sculptor to a blind painter. The outcome of the sculptor’s work would be superior to the hapless painter’s. He then speaks about blind and deaf Helen Keller who managed to understand her lessons by placing her fingers on her teacher’s lips. That seems to be the origin of the braille script.
    The very term “form” leads one to think mainly about the third dimension – a sculpture can be also sensed, a painting only seen.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Wiki says an army officer invented a code, which Braille simplified, for passing secret information to his men at night. Remember that Helen Keller was both blind and deaf,so the lip touching wasn’t to let her understand words (like lip-reading) but to discover that her nanny was speaking–that the words the nanny wrote in her hand were also spoken. (Or does she say otherwise? I read the book a long time ago.)
      I don’t believe sculpture is about touch, basically. It is just another form of visual illusion. It only LOOKS like it would be fun to touch. Of course there are pieces–“feelies”, they used to call them in art school–that are meant for fingers too.

  7. erikatakacs says:


    That’s convincing for sure, and my answer was meant to be only half serious. We’re all in the business of magic tricks, I agree, but with sculpture add you can add touch to the visual, so that’s a bonus. I always feel touched when someone picks my work up, that means so much more than praise by words.

  8. wrjones says:

    Starting from scratch I wonder which skill takes the longer to master.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: Give stone carving five or six years. I’d say carving is easier to learn than painting. But consider talent, motivation, regularity, age, aspirations (something simple? something earth-shaking?).

  9. Rich says:

    I never tire looking at Michelangelo’s work – see Adam here.

    It seems Mark Twain had a somewhat different oppinion; who on his first visit to Rome, was deeply impressed by his works, but gradually got tired of having Michelangelo thrown up all the time.
    To quote Mark:
    “I do not want Michael Angelo for breakfast, for luncheon, for tea, for supper, for between meals,” he complained.
    “In Florence, he painted everything, designed everything, nearly, and what he did not design he used to sit on a favorite stone and look at, and they showed us the stone.
    “He designed St.Peter’s; he designed the Pope; he designed the Pantheon, the uniform ot the Pope’s soldiers, the Tiber, the Vatican….the eternal bore designed the Eternal City….
    “Lump the whole thing! Say that the Creator made Italy from designs by Michelangelo!” This ejaculation was aimed at a guide who mentioned Michelangelo’s name one too many times”

    Don’t quite agree with Twain – but it’s fun though.

    • Ken Januski says:

      I guess sculptors should have a harder time since they get paid more! A Giacometti sculpture set a record last night for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction: $104.3 million.

      That Mark Twain was just a born troublemaker from all I can tell! And always enjoyable reading. Thanks for the quote Rich.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I never tire of Michelangelo but I do sometimes tire of Twain, particularly when he plays Davy Crocket in Rome and goes on and on with frontier exaggeration to see if he can work a smile into a he-haw.

  10. Alas, Ken, Giacometti didn’t get anything like that money for his sculpture. It’s the mad collectors and dealers who pay such prices long after the artist is dead. And I do mean ‘mad’: this is not only 4x the auction estimate but the statue is one of *six* identical multiples. It is a marvellous piece (I saw one of them recently in a big Giacometti show in Rotterdam) but $100 mill. could buy lots of tents for Haiti, a comparison made this morning by the Rotterdam curator.

    • Ken Januski says:

      Hi Judith, Swallows,

      I did say all of this is jest but I should have made myself clearer I suppose. But I think you’re completely correct Judith that these high prices are all speculation. You just hope as Swallows says that the purchaser actually enjoys it.

      I’ll tell a short story to counter this: I had to go to a dentist a few days ago to see about getting a tooth extracted. As I sat in the waiting room I noticed all the original art the office had. Then when I went back to the operating area I found much more. It turns out that both the dentist and his deceased father collected art, not for speculation but because they loved it. In all my years as an artist I don’t think I ever ran into any one, other than other artists, who had such passion for art. It was great hearing how he got to love it through the art hunting expeditions he had with his father when he was a child.

      This is the type of story I’ve only heard about: someone who actually loved art and came from a family of art lovers. What a pleasant contrast from the speculators who have ruined the art world!

  11. Of course if you can only see something from one prospective you may well get it wrong. Indeed your work is going to be one sided and shallow or rather without debth at all!

    Now this could get me going again Swallows!

  12. Rich says:

    What’s the difference between a prospective and a perspecive?

  13. Poor spelling!

  14. Rich says:

    Remarked that. But it was too late…just one click away…

  15. I think it is impolite to show a penis on a sculpture.

Leave a Reply