Spending Time with Sculpture

Emily Hirsch

How do you start writing a paper, an e-mail, or a letter? Often our first thoughts are not the final product we want other others to read. Instead we may dash down our initial ideas, then refine those into a draft before completing a polished final piece.

European sculptors in the early modern period (about 1450–1750) followed this same process: they recorded their first conceptions for a work in either the two-dimensional medium of drawing or three-dimensional medium of wax or clay before executing the sculpture in a more permanent material like wood or stone. The kinds of preparatory objects they made are the subject of my PhD dissertation at Brown University and my research as a CNA fellow. In particular I focus on the creation, function, and use of clay models and sketches by Flemish sculptors from about the end of the 16th century into the 18th century.

Four terracotta sculptures in a display. Left to right: a Madonna and Child, a forlorn-looking woman with eyes cast down, a forlorn-looking woman facing up with arms spread, and another Madonna and Child.
Flemish terracotta sculpture displayed at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Photo courtesy of the author

“Flemish” refers broadly to people living in the Southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium) during this time. The region had been a center for sculptural production in Northern Europe since the Middle Ages, and by the 16th century Flemish sculptors were relied on not only for projects at home but also in the courts and churches of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. Despite the political and religious conflict of the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), which resulted in the mass migration of artists from the Southern Netherlands, many sculptors remained in the region, working under church patronage during and after the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–1621), which reinvigorated the sculpture industry. As a result Flemish sculptors continued to find work on large- and small-scale projects in the Southern Netherlands and abroad during the 17th and 18th centuries. The hundreds of fired clay (also known as terracotta) sketches and models resulting from these projects attest to the extensive and sustained practice of Flemish sculptors working out their ideas in a malleable and inexpensive medium.

For art historians, it’s important not only to understand the historical context of these objects, but also to spend time looking at them in person. Qualities like texture, scale, and depth are especially difficult to convey and assess through a photo. Through my CNA fellowship I had the opportunity to examine terracotta sculpture with MFA conservators and curators and travel to museums in Belgium for research. This helped me develop my dissertation proposal using examples of sculpture I had actually seen and spent time with.

In a conservation lab, a woman speaks to a crowd gathered around three terracotta sculptures of cherubs.
The author presenting Jan Peter van Baurscheit the Elder’s terracotta Four Seasons series at the MFA’s Conversation Center. Photo courtesy of Braden Lee Scott.

Music-Making Angels (1640–41), attributed to François Duquesnoy (1597–1643) and from the MFA’s collection, typifies the kind of sculpture that interests me. Duquesnoy was Flemish but spent most of his career in Rome, where he diligently studied ancient sculpture and began his career as a restorer before becoming one of Rome’s most in-demand sculptors. Duquesnoy was widely admired in his time for his putti, or cherubs, with their distinctive chubby cheeks and fleshy limbs. Duquesnoy’s work at the MFA is a terracotta sketch for a marble relief in the Filomarino family altar at Santi Apostoli in Naples, and an excellent example of the artist’s putti, who sing and hold instruments within a backdrop of swirling clouds. Looking closely at this sculpture helps us understand how the sculptor approached creating a sketch, both materially and conceptually: note the palpable freshness of the clay, the expressiveness of the angels’ faces, quickly formed with a pointed stylus tool, and the attention the sculptor paid to working out the harmonious composition of the figures.

Much of what we encounter in museums are finished works of art, which often conceal the effort of their own making. Objects like drawings, oil sketches, and terracotta studies help reveal this labor and are admirable works of art in their own right. This makes terracotta sketches and models especially fascinating objects to study, as materializations of the sculptor’s intellectual process and workshop practice that have managed to survive to today. I’m grateful to have spent time with these objects, and I look forward to applying what I learned at the CNA to my dissertation.


Emily Hirsch is a PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture at Brown University. She was the 2022–23 Flanders State of the Art Research Fellow at the Center for Netherlandish Art.