Michelangelo? John Ruskin? George F. Pentecost? Boys’ Life Magazine? Orison Swett Marden? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is an unlikely tale about the brilliant Renaissance artist Michelangelo. He was asked about the difficulties that he must have encountered in sculpting his masterpiece David. But he replied with an unassuming and comical description of his creative process:
It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.
I have heard a similar anecdote about an unnamed artist asked about sculpting an elephant:
Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.
Would you please examine this story?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Michelangelo or any other great sculptor made this remark. A comment of this type was published in 1858 in “The Methodist Quarterly Review” without any overt humor. The essay discussed poetry, and the author compared the methods of adroit sculptors and poets. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
It is the sculptor’s power, so often alluded to, of finding the perfect form and features of a goddess, in the shapeless block of marble; and his ability to chip off all extraneous matter, and let the divine excellence stand forth for itself. Thus, in every incident of business, in every accident of life, the poet sees something divine, and carefully scales off all that encumbers that divinity, and permits it to be revealed in all its transcendent loveliness.
By 1879 a humorous version of the tale was in circulation. A weekly paper devoted to free religion called “The Index” printed a short item under the tile “The Simplest Thing in the World”. The statement was ludicrously credited to the leading art critic John Ruskin, and an acknowledgement to a periodical in Paris, France was included: 2
“That Venus” said a critic severely, “is a pretty poor piece of work.” “It is very easy for you to say so,” says a friend of the artist; “still a man has got to have some acquaintance with art before he can sculp a statue like that.” “Oh, bosh, as Mr. Ruskin says. Sculpture, per se, is the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is to take a big chunk of marble and a hammer and chisel, make up your mind what you are about to create and chip off all the marble you don’t want.”—Paris Gaulois.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1883 the religious writer George F. Pentecost published the essay “The Angel in the Marble”. He described an episode from his childhood when he knew a down-and-out sculptor who acquired a large rough piece of marble and placed it in his shed studio. In the following dialog the sculptor was speaking earnestly: 3
Finally, I asked him: “Mr. M., what are you going to make out of that?” Looking up kindly into my face, he said: “My boy, I am not going to make anything out of it. I am going to find something in it.” I did not quite comprehend, but said: “Why, what are you going to find in it?” He replied: “There is a beautiful angel in that block of marble, and I am going to find it? All I have to do is to knock off the outside pieces of marble, and be very careful not to cut into the angel with my chisel. In a month or so you will see how beautiful it is.”
By 1888 the comical version had entered the domain of inspirational books of self-improvement. The volume “Masters of the Situation, Or Some Secrets of Success and Power” included the remark, but the words were credited to a simple rural man instead of Ruskin: 4
To reckon without it reminds one of the countryman’s idea of sculpture: “The simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is to take a big chunk of marble and a hammer and chisel, make up your mind what you are about to create and then chip off all the marble you don’t want.”
In 1894 the influential self-help author Orison Swett Marden placed a closely matching instance of the joke in his book “Pushing to the Front, or, Success Under Difficulties”. Marden attributed the words to a “rustic”. 5
In 1903 an essayist in “The Century Magazine” published an instance of the quip that credited a stereotypical Irish person: 6
…it recalls the Irishman’s idea of how statues are made. “It’s simple enough,” he explained. “All a sculptor has to do is to take a big block of marble and just chip off all that isn’t necessary for the figure.”
In 1909 the periodical “Common-Sense” noted that the saying was being credited to multiple prominent sculptors. In modern times Michelangelo has become a favorite ascription: 7
The statement is frequently attributed to this and that great sculptor, that the only thing necessary to the creation of a great statue is to secure a large block of marble and chip off all of it you don’t want. The saying is more or less to the point when applied to any avenue of success-seeking. Any man can rid himself of the habits of sloth, of lack of aim, of misdirected energy, and of extravagance with time and money, can chisel out his life in a fashion that will be a source of credit and satisfaction to him.
In July 1963 “The Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio published an article titled “Why Are Elephants?” with several cartoons and jokes on the theme of elephants. The following quip referenced the massive pachyderm instead of an exalted figure such as “Venus” or “David”. A similar instance appeared in “Boys’ Life” magazine in December:
“How do you make a statue of an elephant? Get the biggest granite block you can find and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”
In 1964 the editor of a journal published by the National Education Association mentioned a version of the expression with Michelangelo and “David”: 10
The teacher also feels empathy with the sculptor. He can understand Michelangelo who, as Frederick Bolman has said, saw a David in a chunk of marble and then chipped away the surplus.
In 1974 a columnist in the “Boston Herald American” of Massachusetts printed another more elaborate instance with Michelangelo and “David”: 11
It might have happened, just like the story of Michelangelo being congratulated at the unveiling of his immortal David.
“How in God’s name could you have achieved a masterpiece like this from a crude slab of marble?” a fan is supposed to have asked him.
“It was easy,” Mike is said to have said. “All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.”
In conclusion, QI conjectures that this remark began as a non-humorous description of the sculpting process. It evolved into a comical commentary, and the words were assigned to a sequence of disparate individuals: the famous critic John Ruskin, a generic rustic, a stereotype Irishman, an anonymous sculptor, Michelangelo and others. These spurious attributions were part of the joke.
Image Notes: Photo of Michelangelo’s David statue by Rico Heil (User: Silmaril). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped. Reclining Figure (1951) sculpture by Henry Moore; photograph by Andrew Dunn; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped.
(Great thanks to Aristotle Pagaltzis and Gonzalo whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update: On January 3, 2017 the 1885 citation was added.
- 1858 January, The Methodist Quarterly Review, Whittier’s Poems, (Book Review of “The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier), Start Page 72, Quote Page 78, Published by Carlton & Porter, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1879 July 10, The Index: A Weekly Paper Devoted to Free Religion, Volume 10, The Simplest Thing in the World, (Short item), Quote Page 333, Column 2, (The spelling “sculp” appears in the original text) Published by the Index Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1883, The Angel in the Marble, and Other Papers by George F. Pentecost (George Frederick Pentecost), The Angel in the Marble, Start Page 9, Quote Page 12, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books) link ↩
- 1888 (Copyright 1987), Masters of the Situation, Or Some Secrets of Success and Power by William James Tilley, Third Edition, Quote Page 334, N. D. Thompson Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1894 Copyright, Pushing to the Front, or, Success Under Difficulties by Orison Swett Marden, Quote Page 278, Published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 June, The Century Magazine, Volume 66, Number 2, Unavailing Wealth by Eliot Gregory, Start Page 241, Quote Page 242, Column 2, Published by The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1909 September, Common-Sense, Volume 9, Number 9, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 9, Column 2, Common-Sense Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1963 December, Boys’ Life, Volume 53, Number 12, Think and Grin, Quote Page 96, Column 1, Published by Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1963 July 6, The Plain Dealer, Why Are Elephants? by Jane Scott (Young Ohioans Editor), Quote Page 13, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1964 September, NEA Journal, Volume 53, Number 6, Editor’s Notebook by Mildred S. Fenner (Editor of NEA Journal), Published by the National Education Association of the United States, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1974 November 22, Boston Herald American, “Galileo Wouldn’t Have Believed In” by Bob Considine, Quote Page 18, Column 3 and 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)(The word “like” is repeated in the original text) ↩