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Henry Spencer Moore was an English artist, one of the most significant and innovative sculptors of the 20th century, and a key proponent of the Modernist art movement. Born on July 30, 1898, in Castleford, Yorkshire, Moore is best known for his abstract and semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, located around the world, largely as public works of art. His work bridged the gap between traditional figurative sculpture and the emerging abstract movements of European modernism, making him an important and influential figure in the world of modern art.
Moore was the seventh of eight children born to Raymond Spencer Moore, a coal miner, and his wife, Mary Baker. Despite his humble beginnings, Moore's artistic talent was evident from an early age. He was encouraged by his art teacher at Castleford Grammar School, and by the age of 16, he was determined to become a sculptor. After serving in the British Army during World War I, Moore won a scholarship to study at the Leeds School of Art in 1919.
In 1921, Moore was awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. It was during this time that he was exposed to the works of European modernist sculptors such as Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, and Alberto Giacometti. He was particularly inspired by the non-Western art he saw at the British Museum, including African and Mexican sculptures, which greatly influenced his art practice. Graduating from the RCA in 1924, Moore then received a travelling scholarship to study in Italy, where he was exposed to the works of the great Italian Renaissance sculptors Michelangelo, Donatello, and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Returning to London in 1925, Moore began teaching at the RCA and later at the Chelsea School of Art. Throughout the 1930s, he became increasingly well known in the British art world, and his sculptures started to gain international recognition, with exhibitions in Europe and America. Moore's work shifted towards abstraction during this period, with an emphasis on the human figure and the relationship between the body and the landscape.
Image © Sotheby's / Reclining Figure: Festival © Henry Moore 1951
Henry Moore's Reclining Figure: Festival (1951) represents a pivotal moment in his career, serving as his inaugural life-size reclining figure commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Initially met with mixed reactions, it stirred both criticism and admiration for its innovative and humanist aesthetic. Over the years, this artwork has gained substantial value in the secondary market, notably setting Moore's auction record when it sold at Sotheby's in November 2022 for £26 million, marking its third successful sale, each surpassing the previous in value.
Image © Christie's / Reclining Figure © Henry Moore 1982
Henry Moore's exploration of the reclining figure motif remained a constant theme throughout his career, evolving in significance and form. In Reclining Figure (1982), he masterfully balances the twisting and contorted body while introducing drapery around the feet, enhancing the sculpture's formalism and inviting contemplation from various angles. This edition of nine achieved notable success, selling at Christie's in November 2017 for £8.4 million, while another edition of the same work reached £7.1 million at Christie's in November 2018. These sales solidify these pieces as some of Moore's top-selling works, reflecting their artistic merit and market appeal.
Further exploring the concept of balance, Henry Moore began to explore the physical fragmentation of sculptures, evident in Large Four Piece Reclining Figure (1972-1973). This work presents the reclining figure in four parts offering varied perspectives of each form. Upon close observation, the work gives the illusion that if manoeuvred in a specific way, the forms could align and interlock within various places. Although fragmented, the same sense of balance and harmony is achieved through the intentional staking and placement of each piece. Moore's artistic genius lies in his ability to depict the human form in a paradoxically uncanny yet recognisable manner, blending elements of modernity, surrealism, and constructivism.
Large Four Piece Reclining Figure is within Moore's top-selling works, realising £6.3 million at Christie's in May 2017.
Image © Sotheby's / Seated Woman © Henry Moore 1957