If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Describing what you see: Sculpture (Henry Moore, Reclining Figure)

Art description is a key skill for art historians and museum-goers. It involves observing and discussing what you see, not the artist's history or the artwork's context. This process helps you understand the artwork better and form personal interpretations. The video uses a sculpture as an example, discussing its abstract human form, material, and surface. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user Sergei Shneider
    Seems like it is several sculptures at once - as the double breastedness of the figure would suggest - one leisurely reclining, and another, crawling on all fours away from yet another figure thats extending its arms towards the first as if prostrating in some kind of begging gesture.
    (27 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user yeyeroso
    To me, the sculpture is a fascinating deconstruction of the human form. Specifically the female form.

    The first thing I was struck by at were the exaggerated curves of the figure. We see this in its sharply rounded chest/breasts as well as its widely curved bottom and legs, which evoke a plump sensuality. The pose of the subject is something that contributes to this sensuality. Like @MontgomeryMisfit wrote, it resembles a pose from a photoshoot - accentuating bodily assets and drawing attention away from the ordinary. By positioning the subject on the table, hoisted up by what read as its elbows, the artist places this abstractly female figure on display. But unlike a photoshoot, this sculpture is visible from all angles and opens the female body to multiple interpretations.

    @Freckledfrog also wrote about an eerie feeling of motherhood, which I agree with. I can't explain it very well, but I think something about the wide hips and torso cavity, in combination with the positioning of the subject reminds me of childbirth.

    I can't help but think of this work as an exploration of the multiplicity of the female body - capable of being read as mothering, sensuous, and more. The "face", shown at indeed feels to me like it is crying out. Possibly, it is because of how exposed its body is to the audience, who create every possible reading of it. Or possibly, it is crying out at the limited readings of its body under the male gaze.
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Attila
    It looks like a woman giving birth (the missing body parts represent her child), but then you look at it from the front (): that's not how women have their legs when they give birth. From that point of view it looks like she's looking to her left, and pretty intensely, because her whole body shifted positions. It's a cool sculpture!
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user kamma.josefine
    the sculpture seems to be yawning, which triggers my own physical urge to yawn.
    the position of the figure makes me think of pain, but also the fatigue that comes with hurting. that's why she's ( i see her as a woman ) is laying down, supporting herself on her elbows and arms, trying to stretch out the sensations of pain. this also relates to how i view this sculpture as a viewing of the dysfunctional body.
    maybe the head is displayed as something otherworldly, because of the dissociation this body brings to her mental state? so this piece illustrates how the body and the mind is intertwined?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Freckledfrog
    While the figure is made of organic lines, but the straight lines I see in her curvy body makes me think something extraterrestrial being. and the way she lie down shows she is not here to provoke but rather watch over the nature. I feel motherhood in a strange, eerily way.
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user alexandra.green74
      I too thought of motherhood or more specifically giving birth. Its legs appear to be open and its spine arching up and back almost as if it was in pain or breathing heavily. The position of what could be the face seems to be engaged with what is happening to the lower half of its body almost like it is anticipating a new born baby.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user JS1671783
    Would these be an example of abstract,so u can interpret the art in different ways?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user jacki.erickson.lol
    I love how deep these lessons go
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user V T
    It looks like a person holding up the upper part of the body by the elbows. The ivory color and the smooth surface makes me think it is made of bones. The head part is just like a bird head. Also, the lines on the leg part makes it looks like toes of animals.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Malk
    why do we have to describe something
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      From the author:Learning to accurately describe what you see is extremely valuable for many reasons and is a part of the training for doctors, lawyers, law enforcement professionals, many types of engineers, writers, those going into business, and on and on. Communicating what a person sees allows them to communicate what is important to them and leads to more fulfilling lives.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Klyde Warren
    I'm perceiving something different. I see something that has a curiosity of what it's like to be human, perhaps an amalgamation of fungus? Perhaps the lines are a rudimentary nervous system that the fungus hasn't quite figured out how to form. The group-in-one appears to be crying out for touch, desperately wanting to learn what it feels like. Thoughts, anyone?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Beth] Describing something can seem very straightforward but in fact describing a work of art can take time, and should take time, because the more you describe something the more you understand what you see and the closer you'll get to interpreting what you see. So this is why describing is one of those first skills that art historians learn. - [Steven] And really anybody who goes to the museum should have conversations about what they see. And the associations that it brings to mind in addition to pure description. - [Beth] And so here's what we're not gonna do. We're not gonna talk about when the sculpture was made, we're not gonna talk about the historical context, we're not gonna talk about the artist's biography. We're only going to describe what we see. - [Steven] I see a human body and it's large. One that's abstracted, that's not a careful rendering of human anatomy. - [Beth] I see what look like arms and legs and a reclining figure. - [Steven] There's no question that we immediately recognize the legs, the knees, the torso, the elbows, the neck. But the more that we look at those individual parts of the body, the more that we see the choices that the artist has made, the more that we recognize that this is not an actual elbow, that's not really a neck, that's not really a head. But we still see it that way. - [Beth] And most obviously, what makes this not really a body is the giant cavity. That giant open space where we expect to see a torso. - [Steven] But before we begin to describe the individual elements of the sculpture I think it's also important to make a few observations about the material and the surface. The sculpture is a dirty white, and it's so smooth that it invites us to touch it, even though the museum would rather we didn't. - [Beth] Well it does have these lovely curvilinear forms that feel like they would be very pleasurable to touch. But there's also a way in which that dirty ivory color feels like bone, feels organic. - [Steven] And that's complicated because bones are on the inside but what we're seeing is the outside. Or is this a fossil? Has the flesh been removed? Except that the figure seems animated. It seems as if it's still intact. - [Beth] As we look closer we see forms that seem to be missing. Hands, or at least the fingers. Feet and parts of the body also seem to be duplicated. What read to me as breasts occur in two places in this sculpture. What read to me as hips occurs in two places in this sculpture. - [Steven] So we can't be too literal at any point. You said a moment ago that there are no fingers. But there's a reference to fingers, that is the fingers have been abstracted. If you look at the figure's left hand, it seems to be a fist with its fingers curled in, described by an oval of string that's embedded in the surface. - [Beth] Nevertheless the artist has decided not to give us individual fingers. He's decided not to give us an ankle and a foot with toes and an arch in it. - [Steven] But that is still a foot because of the angle at which the leg ends. I get the sense of a heel, of toes. And I get the sense of where the ankle would be. It's as if the artist is inviting me to fill in what he's left out. - [Beth] In a way the negative space, the space between the forms feels just as substantial as the forms themselves. That space where the torso should be, which is empty. The way that what reads as the spine or the upper back is uplifted as the form seems to support itself on its elbows. That lovely negative space that gives us a sense of lifting up of the upper body. - [Steven] And because of that lifting up, not only are the elbows and the forearms but also on this other indeterminate limbs, I get the sense that this is not only human. It's a different kind of creature, almost an insect that could move forward on all fours or perhaps all sixes. - [Beth] There's also a tension between the soft organic rounded forms and these straight lines that seem to draw our attention to a breast, an elbow, a shoulder. - [Steven] A contour. This is drawing on form. Granted when I look at this sculpture, I can't help but think of the human body, but I also have a sense that I'm looking at a landscape. That the knees are distant mountains, that somehow this is a unity of human form and the earth itself. - [Beth] It's so funny that you say that because when I see this sculpture I immediately imagine a figure on a beach. So I didn't just imagine a reclining figure, I imagined the natural location of this figure, outside. - [Steven] Sunbaked. - [Beth] In fact, lifting up to catch the rays of the sun. - [Steven] The almost cushion-like form in the center of the sculpture, that can be read simultaneously as a chest, as breasts, perhaps as a torso, as an indeterminate form, creates for me a feeling. It is the feeling that I have when I arch my back. When I look at this sculpture, I feel that pulling in my body. And so the artist has used the simplest of tools. He's used form itself, he's used the line that he's constructed with string. And he's able to create in me an association and a physical memory. - [Beth] Some views of the sculpture feel very recumbent and languorous where others have a sense of tension. If we look at what reads as the head, we see two circular forms with an indentation in the center that read as an eye. And that open mouth that seems to be yearning and even almost crying. - [Steven] So we've spent only a few minutes looking at the sculpture but we've developed a whole set of associations. We've matched words with what we're seeing. And those words have created the foundation for our own personal interpretation. And I find that if I spend time describing, if I spend time looking closely, even a work of art, that at first seem difficult and confusing, that perhaps I didn't like at first glance, this changes and an appreciation for what the artist achieved begins to develop. (jazzy piano music)