“Painters are lucky dogs,” say the sculptors. “If they can come up with a single good view of anything, they’ve got their picture. We have to find a figure that is pretty no matter where you stand to look at it. How many times have we had to throw out a good idea because, though it was wonderful seen from the front, it turned out to have an ugly or confusing or dead side when we worked it out in clay or wax!”
Painters usually concede this. But they should make the sculptors back down a little, at least as far as the “all sides” goes. Most theories even reduce them to seven or five or three. The truth is, all statues have good and better sides, and they are exhibited to show these off. Most stand up against the wall or so near it you can’t walk all around them to examine the back.
Laocoön and his sons. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506 Height 8′ (2.4 m.) A public domain photo by Marie-Lan Nguyeny , published here
With very few exceptions—Gianbologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women is one—statues are meant to be displayed almost like paintings,
Rape of the Sabine Women (1574-82), by Giambologna, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported photo by Ricardo André Frantz, published here)
against the wall or only slightly set forth to allow side views. That is, they are like high reliefs. And it could almost be said that all sculpture is relief, even if it is carved all around.
Sculpture was originally part of architecture. It adorned friezes and architraves.
It stood in niches along the walls. It hardly ever stood isolated from a building. A figure “in the round” was really an extension of a figure in high relief; and so it remained.
Nearly all of Michelangelo’s figures, like this Lorenzo de Medici, stand next to a wall. They were never meant to be seen from the back.
Here is his Night (Notte), lying on a Medici sepulchre:
What does she look like from the back? Did he sculpt her all around?
This rare view is taken from Ludwig Goldscheider’s great book Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, Phaidon Press, reprinted 1967.