Planning to visit the MET in New York City but unsure what famous artwork you should see? Don’t worry, we are MET experts so we have you covered. Here are the most famous sculptures that you absolutely positively should not miss when visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The 13 Can’t-Miss Sculptures At The MET
Art is about emotion. It is an artist unleashing their innermost thoughts and feelings onto the art piece for all to witness. It is such a powerful act, that many have been criticized, scrutinized, and even killed just for doing the act.
However, few actually see it, and even fewer understand. If you look at the sculpture and don’t feel anything, that is because you haven’t heard its story. This is the very reason we recommend guided tours.
If you hear the story and don’t get chills, then it is not great artwork. Its purpose is to inspire emotion. You don’t have to have a strong art background to appreciate art. It definitely helps, but it is not essential.
You can make your visit memorable by joining a guide with a strong art background who is skilled in the art of story-telling. That’s what we do!
13. Relief panel
Unknown | 883–859 B.C | Gypsum alabaster | Gallery 401
Picture in your head something that you have created with your hands. Now imagine that object lasting 3 millennia. How could I not add it to this list? I also think the subject matter is pretty cool. While this art piece is not a three-dimensional sculpture, it still has the ability to fascinate.
This relief resided in the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II. In the relief, there are two men with the left one probably Ashurnasirpal and on the right a servant. It is a credit to the artist ( and the dry climate) that after almost 3,000 years we can make out the entire relief in complete clarity.
For example, you definitely didn’t want to mess with the king. On his body is a sword, two daggers and he’s holding a bow, so he obviously had some security issues. To lighten things up he is also holding a bowl with wine in it ( why drink from a cup when you can drink from a bowl?)
The beardless guy on the right was probably a eunuch. He also has a sword, but in his right hand, he’s holding a fly swatter to protect the king against flies. Since this is a tomb relief, imagine how serious the flies were if, by your grave, you would be pictured with a servant keeping the flies away from you?
Below that you can see writing which cuts right across the art piece. This inscription is telling everyone about the king’s accomplishments during his lifetime.
A distinctive feature of the Northwest Palace is the so-called Standard Inscription that ran across the middle of every relief, often cutting across the imagery. It is thought to have had a magical function, contributing to the divine protection of the king and the palace.MET Official Archives
12. Head of a Queen Mother
Unknown | 1750–1800 | Brass | Gallery 352
“Head of a Queen Mother” is definitely different than most of the other sculptures on this list. It is a rendering of an iyoba or mother of the oba ( king) that explains the importance of women in the Benin kingdom’s political hierarchy.
This art piece hails from the kingdom of Benin which would be in today’s southern Nigeria. In the 15th century is the first time this title appears when Idia, mother of king Esigie, used her political skill to save a dissolving kingdom. From that time in history, the queen mother exerted considerable force in the kingdom. The iyobas enjoyed a separate palace, female servants, and of course the right to have a brass sculpture made of themselves.
I commend the MET for bringing in diverse art works such as these, so we can learn about kingdoms and areas that otherwise we probably never would.
11. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in Water Moon Form (Shuiyue Guanyin)’
Unknown | 11th century | Wood | Gallery 208
The title of this work is a mouthful. Let’s start with some definitions of the words to make this sculpture a bit more ” user friendly”.
Bodhisattva– (“one whose goal is awakening”), in Buddhism, one who seeks awakening (bodhi)—hence, an individual on the path to becoming a buddha.
Avalokiteshvara– The name Avalokiteshvara means “Lord who looks down with compassion.”
Now that we understand this is a statue of an enlightened individual who has god-like qualities full of compassion, we can enjoy the statue better! He sits here with his right knee raised and his left leg crossed before his body. This particular stance shows the Water Moon manifestation and therefore depicts the divinity in his Pure Land or personal paradise.
While this mythical paradise was thought to be on an island in Southern India, the 15th-century followers identified it with Mount Putuo which is an island on the east coast of Zhejiang. At that point, it had become an important pilgrimage site.
10. The Intoxication of Wine
Clodion (Claude Michel) | 1780–90 | Terracotta | Gallery 552
Clodion was a French sculptor whose career spanned through the last moments of the old regime and into Napoleon’s reign. His specialty was Bacchic orgies as you can see above. As with most artists of the time, he went to study art in Rome and got the ” Classic” bug.
The “Intoxication of Wine” is Rococo which was his style of choice and I have to say he nails it perfectly. While the neoclassical style was emerging during this time, his flowing movements in the above sculpture show a beautiful fluidity. In his later works, he also made statues in the neo-classical style.
I have found that there are two main themes in expressing true emotion in sculpture- Pain, and Joy. A great example of pain is the Ugolino statue ( see above) while joy is perfectly expressed here. While most of us ( I assume) have not taken part in Bacchic orgies, we can all appreciate the warm happiness that spreads over our bodies with some wine. The look on both their faces leaves us no doubt about their feelings.
The seeming spontaneity of this composition, a rapturous embrace, in which it appears that the senses are totally abandoned, was achieved only after much meditation. This work is one of the most minutely studied of all the Bacchic orgies that were Clodion’s specialty. The front and back show deliberate adjustments of angles, openings, and masses, all checked and balanced as the model passed under his fingers on his trestle table.MET Official Archives
9. Bronze Statue of Eros Sleeping
Unknown | 3rd–2nd century B.C. | Bronze | Gallery 164
It is always super exciting to see a bronze statue from antiquity. In Roman times, Romans melted down the bronze statues for their metal. . As aghast as you might be in that thought, not to worry since they usually made a copy in marble first. So many copies exist of this statue in marble that this could be the original.
“Bronze Statue of Eros Sleeping” is from the Hellenistic period. This is the period from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) and the beginning of the Roman Empire ( 31 B.C.). During this time Greek culture flooded the world from Rome all the way to Afghanistan and India. According to the Met Official Archives, ” The Hellenistic period introduced the accurate characterization of age. Young children enjoyed great favor, whether in mythological form, as baby Herakles or Eros, or in genre scenes, playing with each other or with pets”.
For example, Eros, the god of love is depicted here without his cruel arrow. In Archaic poetry, he was known as often being cruel. Looking at this statue, there is only innocence. In today’s world, you get professional photos taken of your children. Back in the day, you would have an artist use their face to adorn a statue and immortalize them.
8. Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children
Gian Lorenzo Bernini | 1616–17 | Marble | Gallery 534
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was like King Midas- almost anything he touched turned to gold. He was by far the most prolific and famous sculptor in the Italian Baroque Period. Bernini was only 18 years old when he created this, therefore it contrasts with his later works which are more refined.
Needless to say, being 18 years old and creating something of this caliber is quite impressive. You can already see his attention to minute detail and the expressiveness of the figures. Therefore this is a foreshadowing of his Santa Teresa or Apollo and Daphe which are in Rome.
“Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children” is a playful statue where a Faun appears to be at the mercy of two small children. A Faun is a mythical forest creature and therefore even a bit ironic that human children would be playing with it. Starting back in the Hellenic age, adding children to artwork became quite popular and had a resurgence during the Baroque period.
The influence of his father, the Florentine-born Pietro, can be seen here in the buoyant forms and cottony texture of the Bacchanal. The liveliness and strongly accented diagonals, however, are the distinctive contribution of the young Gian Lorenzo.MET Official Archives
7 .Burghers of Calais
Auguste Rodin | modeled 1884–95, cast 1985 | Bronze | Gallery 548
Auguste Rodin remains arguably the most famous French sculpture to date. He is most famous for his sculpture The Thinker which is located at the Rodin Museum in Paris, France.
I personally find the story behind the “Burghers of Calais” fascinating! English king Edward III (1312–1377), besieged the French town of Calais. Once the city surrendered, the king ordered the 6 most prominent citizens ( Burghers) to come to him. They also had to bring the keys of the city, with feet bare and ropes around their neck. The rope signified that the king ordered them to be beheaded!
Imagine the feeling of dread you would have knowing that you are walking out to certain death? However, not all is bleak. Unbeknownst to the Burghers, the English queen Philippa intervenes on their behalf to release them!
Rodin’s masterpiece displays the difficult arrangement of the figures. Some are looking straight ahead, while others are looking to the side. Some are in motion while others are standing still. This variety in one sculptural group expresses his mastery of various movements that he cast in Bronze.
6. Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Antonio Canova | 1804–6 | Marble | Gallery 548
The Countess Valeria Tarnowska of Poland purchased this replica of Perseus. The original Perseus that Canova made is in the Vatican Musuems.
Canova took his inspiration for this piece from Greek mythology. Perseus was the slayer of the Gorgon Medusa and rescued Andromeda from the sea monster. He was a demi-god being the son of Zeus and Danaë. A wily king tricked Perseus to obtain the head of Medusa.
Since her gaze turned anyone to stone, he guided himself to her by the reflection of his shield. He then beheaded her while she slept. Canova chose this victorious moment for his art piece.
Like most artists before him, Canova would have been extremely influenced by classical artists. While today, artists can freely visit a museum, back in the 18th century the best place to visit where the Vatican Museums. A perfect example of influence for this statue is the Apollo Belvedere from the Vatican. The refined, noble face is almost a direct copy from the Apollo.
5. Ugolino and his Sons
Jean Baptiste Carpeaux | 1865–67 | Saint-Béat marble | Gallery 548
Personally, I feel that few statues can express true pain and fear. Ugolino and his sons capture this in a way that is similar only to the Laocoon. Read below to understand the story behind this.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ” Jean Baptiste Carpeaux’s works, contain a lively realism, rhythm, and variety that were in opposition to contemporary French academic sculpture, and form a prelude to the art of Auguste Rodin, who revered him.
The theme for “Ugolino and his sons” goes back to the 13th-century work by Dante, Divine Comedy. Officials ordered the Pisan count Ugolino Della Gherardesca, his sons, and his grandsons to prison for treason. It is in the prison that they died of starvation. In the XXXIII canto of Inferno, Dante mentions this horrible story.
Carpeaux studied art in Rome. In this piece, you witness the influence of previous masters on him. You can see from the abundant muscles and minute detail that Carpeaux was an avid follower of Michelangelo. This is especially true concerning Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
“The grip of all of these people, the density of this composition, communicates the crisis.”Sam Pinkleton-Theater director
4. The Temple of Dendur
Unknown | 10 B.C. | Aeolian sandstone | Gallery 131
I have to give huge props to the museum curator who organized the installation of the “Temple of Dendur” at the MET. Usually, to witness a life-size temple you would have to go on-site, in this case to Egypt. However, the MET has brought Egypt to New York City! They set it up so that you only see the temple after making a sharp left turn. At that point, a gigantic temple opens up in front of you.
In the 1960s the Egyptian government wanted to control the flooding of the Nile river. Therefore they built the Aswan Dam. However, a dam creates a lake that would have covered archeological sites, including Dendur where this temple comes from. Many countries came together to help Egypt with supplies, equipment, and funds to map out the ancient territories in this area. To show their appreciation to the United States for their help, the Egyptian government gave as a gift this temple and gateway!
Once you are in the gallery, you will be astonished at the size of the gateway and temple itself. The year of its construction is 15 BC which means that it was built during the Roman occupation. The little temple itself is dedicated to the goddess Isis together with Pedesi and Pihor, deified sons of a local Nubian ruler. If you are a Roman History nerd then you will be pleased to know that Emperor Augustus is also mentioned in this temple! The depiction of the Pharaoh is none other than Augustus, the first emperor of Rome!
3. Dancing Celestial Deity (Devata)’
Unknown | mid-11th century | Sandstone | Gallery 241
The “Dancing Celestial Deity” would make Gumby proud. The body twists and distorts in a way that is definitely not human, which is the point. I’ll explain.
The Dancing Celestial Deity or Devata is performing a dance in honor of the gods. This life-size sculpture would have been placed inside a Hindu temple. Since a Hindu temple is the heavenly home of a presiding deity, the Devata is there to honor the god.
Why are the dancer’s legs going to the right while the torso and head are turning to the left? The sculptor would have contorted the dancer’s face and body according to prescribed canons of beauty. This is similar in Renaissance Christian art where a woman would be depicted with blond hair and very voluptuous. According to the MET’s official archives, ” The extreme flexion reflects dance positions (karunas and sthanas) described in the Natyasastra, an ancient dramatic arts treatise. It is understood in Indian aesthetics that such positions enhance the appreciation of beauty”.
Jean Antoine Houdon | 1787 | Bronze |
What feeling is worse than the biting cold? The humid cold goes right through your clothes, no matter how many layers you have on. As I have mentioned earlier the main two expressions in sculpture are joy and pain. The pain this woman is feeling from the cold is palpable. Even looking at it, makes me shiver now. It never ceases to amaze me the skill involved in bringing alive such emotion from a piece of cold metal.
Jean Antoine Houdon was surprisedly primarily known for his portraiture. I say surprisedly because this statue is not a portrait and is fascinating to look at. Houdon grew up in Versailles as the son of a servant. His father then served as a concierge for École des Élèves Protégés where recipients of the Prix de Rome were schooled. In this way, Houdon grew up surrounded by these budding artists and eventually received the prize himself in 1761.
1. Venus Italica
Workshop of Antonio Canova | Probably ca. 1822–23, variant of marble first executed 1810 | Carrara Marble | Gallery 515
When I think of Antonio Canova, I envision a huge torch of greatness being passed down to him from his predecessors. In my head it is Donatello (15th century), passing it to Michelangelo (16th century), passing it to Bernini (17th century), passing it to him.
Don’t be put off by the fact this statue was done by his workshop. Successful artists had so many commissions it was impossible to do them all. The master would usually create the drawing and how it should be carved and the workshop took over. Similar to Steve Jobs creating the idea of the iPod, but engineers making it happen.
This ” Venus Italica” is actually the third Venus that Canova created. The first Venus is in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. In 1804, Ludovico I, King of Etruria, ordered the second Venus as a replacement for the original Medici Venus taken by the French. The third Marquess of Londonderry purchased this replica in late 1826 or early 1827 where it remained until 1962.
Antonio Canova is considered the greatest Neoclassical sculptor of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Along with the painter Jacques Louis David, he was credited with ushering in a new aesthetic of clear, regularized form and calm repose inspired by classical antiquities.Christina Ferando– Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art