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. See

One thought on “On ‘chipping away’

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