Holding the classical traditions of ancient Greek sculpture with contemporaries’ naturalism and carving highly accomplished but rather bland sculpture, the German sculptor and writer on art, Adolf von Hildebrand, is celebrated as one of the first sculptors of the 19th century to insist upon the aesthetic autonomy of sculpture from painting, a doctrine he most effectively promulgated in his famous 1893 essay, “Das Problem der Form”, which helped establish the theoretical foundation for modern sculpture.
One of the leading sculptor of his time, Hildebrand was born on September 6, 1847, at Marburg. The son of the economist Bruno Hildebrand, he studied first at the Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremberg, and then with the sculptors Kaspar von Zumbusch in Munich and Rudolf Siemering in Berlin. After studying in Munich, he first traveled to Italy in 1867 and there he met German philosophers and art theorists whose aesthetic theories greatly inspired him.
Florentine Renaissance sculpture became Hildebrand's point of reference, and in 1872, he moved to Italy and lived there until 1897. There he befriended the art theorist Konrad Fiedler and the painter Hans von Marées, whose views on the form were to be fundamental to Hildebrand’s aesthetics of sculpture. In 1873, he designed the architectural setting for the painter's murals in the library of the German Marine Zoological Institute at Naples.
In a 1884 exhibition in Berlin, Hildebrand’s work comes to the attention of a wider public in Germany. Seven years later, he received his first large commission, for a fountain in Munich, the “Wittelsbach Fountain” (Maximilian-platz, Munich). In this work, Hildebrand suppressed naturalistic detail, emphasizing instead compact form and clarity of design derived from ancient Greek sculpture.
After the completion of this sculpture, Hildebrand got general recognition and numerous commissions. From then until the beginning of the World War I, he divided his time between Florence and Munich, executing five more monumental urban fountains. His most characteristic works were nude figures- timeless and rather austere- in the high-minded tradition of Greek art. He also made several large monuments, including a statue of the composer Johannes Brahms in Meiningen (1898).
Hildebrand classicizing style stood in marked contrast to his contemporaries’ naturalism. Believing that the sculptor’s goal was to allow forms to emerge from the block, he was strongly influenced by Michelangelo. In his famous theoretical treatise, “Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst”, he asserted that truth is revealed in form, with the subject matter of relatively minor importance. The book went through many editions, including an English translation, “The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture” (1907), and was influential in promoting a move against surface naturalism in sculpture.
In addition to his many commissions, Hildebrand made many sculptures of his family, including one owned by the Getty Museum. He was ennobled by the King of Bavaria in 1904. At the age of 63, Hildebrand died on January 18, 1921, in Munich, Germany.