The early roots avant garde art's default stance of opposition to the academy, indeed, of opposition to almost any kind of rule, taboo or proscription, can be traced back to the decidedly non-abstract Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848. Simultaneously radical and ultra-conservative, the Pre-Raphaelites disdained the Classical poses and artificiality of the compositions painted by the generations of painters who followed Raphael. Instead, they emulated what they saw as the purer Quattrocento (Italian for 1400's) style. They especially deplored the "sloshy" style of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who they snidely referred to as "Sir Sloshua", favoring instead precise, highly finished brushwork, bright colors, abundant and intricate detail, and Medieval subject matter. To modern eyes, this combination brings it dangerously close to being illustration, but at the time, it constituted a substantial rebellion against the academic norms.
Whatever its stylistic merits from a contemporary point of view, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seeded art of the later 19th Century, in both Britain and the Continent, with two distinctly modern notions: that the artist's first duty is personal freedom and responsibility, rather than adherence to the established style, and that contemporary academic art needed to change. It also initiated the modern phenomena of an emerging style being accompanied by a manifesto.
With the bias of hindsight, the chain of French artistic styles that progress from Impressionism, to Cezanne, to the increasing abstraction of the Fauves and Modernists, commands disproportionate attention today, because Modernism and its descendants so dominated high art from the inter-war years onward. In fact, however, art in the 1890's was going down many paths at once, and neither in Britain nor on the Continent, did representational art seem to be waning during those years. Academic masters such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Paul Chabas enjoyed immense success, the Pre-Raphaelites remained popular and influential, and the academy-trained John Singer Sargent was widely regarded as one of the finest painters in history. (Sargent was an American transplanted to London by way of France.) Farther outside of the Royal Academy, the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley, with roots in the French bohemian scene, was making waves, and while a handful of artists, particularly in France, were inching towards abstraction, Impressionism remained vital even as Post-Impressionist painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Pissarro pushed representational painting in other directions. Serious art in the 19th Century was arguably more diverse than it has ever been before or since, and though anti-academic schools were proliferating rapidly, the oppositional stance was not yet mandatory for an artist, and academic roots were not a bar to brilliance or innovation.
Figurative sculpture, deeply tied to architecture, and thus to established power, tends to be a far more conservative medium than painting. In France, the pinballing of post-Revolution politics between two empires, a monarchy, and three republics, had kept sculpture moving, but in long-stable England, by the 1870's, sculpture had become almost fossilized, never having fully emerged from the cool Neoclassicism of the Industrial Revolution era. Half a century after Canova's death, British sculpture was mired in a dead tradition and was mocked by the critics and public. Two generations of stylistic innovation had largely passed British sculpture by. Canova's Three Graces below, is typical of Neoclassicism. Patrick McDowell's Europa, from the Albert Memorial, is a an equally typical example of High Victorian sculpture.
Against this background, in the last two decades before Modernism would sweep away the Academy and anathematize all it stood for, occurred one of the most extraordinary sculptural movements you may never have heard of: the British New Sculpture movement, which received its name in 1894, and faded away after the surge of monument building that followed The Great War. The sculptors of the movement, mostly young, were acutely aware of sculptures predicament, and were dedicated to finding a way out of the impasse in which academic sculpture found itself.
In 1871, Aime-Jules Dalou, former student of the great Carpeaux, one of the premier sculptors of France and curator of the Musee du Louvre under Gustave Courbet, fled France for England after his well known sympathy with the failed Paris Commune put him in danger of imprisonment. An acknowledged genius of sculpture, Dalou found work teaching, first at The South Kensington School of Art and subsequently at the National Art Training School, and persuaded his colleague and friend, the eminent sculptor Edouard Lanteri, to join him. Dalou and Lanteri taught many of the young artists who would mature into the New Sculpture Movement.
Dalou and Lantieri practiced a romantic naturalism that was on the line of descent from the French Romantics to Rodin, and their move to England transplanted these roots among the young English sculptors who, like Rodin and his circle in France, were searching for a style of sculpture that would make sense in the new world developing explosively around them, a world of photography, machines, and mechanized warfare.
While Dalou's students were in their formative years, Sir Frederic Leighton, an eminent academic painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, having used small modeled figures extensively in laying out his paintings, became increasingly interested in the figures themselves. With the assistance of the young academic sculptor Thomas Brock (later Sir Thomas Brock) he developed one of the models into the full-sized bronze Athlete Wrestling with a Python.
Leighton was a 47 year old painter when he exhibited Python at the Royal Academy, and though he was a candidate for the presidency of that organization (he was elected the following year) it was his first significant work of sculpture. The Victorian art-viewing public was a sophisticated audience, but deeply accustomed to the predictable norms of Neoclassicism, and Python violated those norms right and left. Technically speaking, it violated them from infinitely many sides, because Neoclassicism favors frontally oriented compositions with the figures at rest, or caught in the instant of repose between motions. Python was a highly dynamic composition of an figure in motion, designed to be seen from any viewpoint. It flamboyantly turned its back on the chilly formality of Neoclassicism, and moved towards a more naturalistic style which, though idealized, did not conform to the classical canon. The Pre-Raphaelite influence in Python is also evident, and a similar romantic quality recurs frequently among the work of the members of the New Sculpture movement.
Moreover, Python was bronze, a medium that in the Neoclassical Victorian tradition was thought unsuitable for a piece of such importance. Significantly, the composition would not have been practical in stone because it relies on the tensile strength of bronze, and in stone it would not be strong enough be safely self-supporting. (Leighton eventually, and reluctantly, had the piece executed in marble as well, but with the addition of the conventional tree stump to the composition to adequately support the stone.)
Leighton was anything but an art outsider, but he had never been a sculptor. His piece shook the 1870's world of sculpture not only because it was a piece of great power that flouted the conventions of Neoclassicism, but because it entered the world of sculpture not only from outside, but at the top, bursting on the scene fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. It injected into sculpture some of the excitement that Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had brought to painting a generation earlier. The students of Dalou and Lantieri, already infected with the spirit of contemporary French sculpture, seized upon Leighton's example, combining the freedom of Leighton's spirit with the gentle naturalism of the French realists.
In 1894, the critic Edmund Gosse, a close friend of the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft, gave the name The New Sculpture to the loose movement forming among Thornycroft and and several other young sculptors who had been trained by Dalou and Lantieri, is a series of four articles for the The Art Journal and cited Python as the progenitor of the style.
There was nothing inevitable about the New Sculpture. In France, Rodin was taking a very different direction, and in Germany, the sculptor and theorist Adolph von Hildebrand was leading a generation down the diametrically opposite path, attempting to reform Neoclassicism by a return to a purer, truer Classicism. Ironically, Hildebrand's program, which, though cloaked in science, was so conservative as to stretch the meaning of the word, would influence the 20th century Modernists far more than New Sculpture, because of its focus on the aesthetic necessity of direct carving.
New Sculpture was Britain's ideosyncratic response to the new, and over the next twenty years, the finest work of the generation went far beyond Leighton, placing less emphasis on idealization, and more on a striking naturalism that is often heartbreaking in its fidelity to the human particularity of the model. The Classical motifs of New Sculpture are superficial; its essence is in many ways the opposite of classicism. Classicism idealizes the figure so that it's three-dimensional reality does not become shocking. The best examples of the New Sculpture take the other path, capturing the living essence a an individual person at an instant of life, that there is always a poignant base note of fatality implicit in contrast between the vital essence that is portrayed and the incorruptibility of the marble in which it is expressed. For this reason, despite the hyper-masculine and heroic nature of the prototypal Athlete Wrestling with a Python, New Sculpture is often at its best with gentler subject matter---women, the young, men working or in love, rather than in battle. While the importance of Athlete is undeniable, the case could be made that it is one of the least typical examples of New Sculpture, nearly as different from the direction subsequently taken by New Sculpture, as it was from the Victorian style that it helped bring to a close. In some ways, the spirit of Athlete more resembles the extravagance of the new-Hellenistic styles that were simultaneously developing in Germany and elsewhere.
The Great War began in 1914, twenty years after New Sculpture received its name. When it ended in 1918, at least sixteen million people had been killed and twenty million more injured. The unimaginable scale of the calamity extinguished any vestige of legitimacy that had remained to the ancient aristocracies at the outbreak. Five empires had entered the war, but only the British Empire would emerge intact four years later, and even in Britain, though the forms of aristocratic rule remained, universal suffrage, labor movements, and the weakening of the British grip on her colonies, were rapidly eroding the substance of power.
The industrial world that emerged from the war had little place for the Classical symbolism of the Academy, neither in painting, nor sculpture, nor architecture; the old forms were abandoned and shunned by the young, and those who looked to the future. Totalitarian governments would resuscitate Classicism in a debased form, but the influence of the academies plummeted in Britain, Europe, and the United States. Mature sculptors continued for a time in the old styles, mostly carving monuments to the dead, but young artists of talent wanted to be part of the new world, not the old one. For the most part, the sculptors of the next generation did not have academic roots, but came from the bohemian world of painting. The New Sculpture was suddenly just another kind of old sculpture, and was largely forgotten, misunderstood and mostly written out of the history books, not so much because it had lacked merit, but because it had no successor.
Today, an even century since the outbreak of The Great War, the echos of the collapse of the old order are dying away. Critics, notably David J. Getsy, in his book Body Doubles, which centers on Leighton, Thornycroft, Ford, and Thomas, have begun to reassess this remarkable moment in sculpture. The naturalism of The New Sculpture is no longer seen as just another branch on the dead tree of Neo-Classicism, but rather as a forward looking movement, different in style, but is many ways more akin to the school of Rodin in its doomed struggle to find a way forward into the new world.