A sculptor, an academician, and a painter. Antoine Bourdelle was a prolific artist who was born in France during the late 19th century. Although he grew up to a poor family, his fair share of commercial success helped him raised enough money to buy his own studio, which was to become Musee Bourdelle, an art museum dedicated to his art pieces.
Bourdelle received his formal art training from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse at age 15 and was subjected under the tutelage of Auguste Rodin. But little did he know that he would become Rodin’s prodigy at the time. His subject is often classified as romantic and the monumentality of his figures are derived from both classical and medieval sculpture. He was one of the few sculptors who was dedicated to reviving the said art medium to its traditional outdoor setting than making smaller scale works that were meant for indoor use.
Antoine Bourdelle was deliberate in his choice of specializing in Romantic sculptural art and use of classical Greek figures as inspirations. However rigid a classical sculpture may be, his eclectic attitude towards art would still come out which can be seen in his The Archer work of 1909. This sculptural piece is so magnificent with its boldness, and thus, it made the artist known for having his own unique style.
One of his masterpieces, Defenders of Montauban, is a traditional outdoor sculpture dedicated to commemorate the patriotism of the locals as they defend the city during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to ’71. The work’s historical relevance, monumentality, and the artist’s intention contributed a lot to the overall success of the work and to Bourdelle’s own fame. The Montauban sculpture received a massive success that he received another series of public commissions.
Some examples of Antoine Bourdelle’s works included Sappho (1887), Leda and the Swann (1919), Grande Penelope, variante (1912), Jeune sculpteur au travail, The Meditation of Apollo and the Muses (1912), Herakles Archer, grande etude (1909), Bust of Gustave Eiffel, and the L’art Pastoral.
Emile-Antoine Bourdelle was born in October 30, 1861 in Montauban, Tarn-et-Garonne of France. His family came from the working class but his father owned a cabinet making business where the young Antoine first worked as a wood carver. Because of poverty and the need to support his family, he was forced to leave primary school to work at the age of 13.
Under the sponsorship of two patrons Henri Lacaze and Emile Pouvillon, Bourdelle left his hometown and went to Toulouse to pursue his art studies in 1878. He was accepted by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at age 15 and then finished through the course until 1883. During his school years he was an over-achiever, winning different kinds of art contests which eventually got him a pension support while living in Toulouse.
In 1883 Bourdelle moved to Paris to enter the Academy of Fine Arts there. He executed an art work to be accepted, which he won second place. He was taken under the wings of Falguiere for a couple of years and then after graduating from his classes, the young sculptor turned his flat into a small studio. In some occasion he would visit Jules Dalou’s studio to learn more about art and expand on his circle of clients.
Around 1888, Bourdelle produced a number of Beethoven sculptures. During this period his style was characterized by its geometrical symmetry, solid construction and partly innovative. His interest in reviving the traditional sculptures in outdoor settings grew deeper that he pioneered some styles just before the turn of the new century.
At some point, Auguste Rodin must have heard of Bourdelle’s promising art work that he began to admire the artist’s work. In 1893 Rodin contracted the Mantauban native to become one of his assistants. Since then, the two developed a great student-teacher relationship and this definitely brought a positive impact on the rising career of Bourdelle.
Antoine Bourdelle’s earliest exhibition was held at the Salon in 1884. One year later his submitted work made it to the honorable mention list and he showcased it at the Salon au Champ du Mars of 1891 and at the Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts presumably of the same year. He would then become a regular exhibitor at both salons until 1922; hence, cemented his reputation in the industry as one of the finest modern art sculptors.
One of his major public commission was the Le Monument Aux Morts de La Guerre de 1870 at Montauban. He produced this while working for Rodin as an assistant, showing how much artistic influence his Master shared upon him. In 1900, he began a career in the academe but it was only until 1909 when he was offered a professorship position by the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere.
In 1905, Antoine Bourdelle was invited to attend his first ever solo exhibition at Hebrard Gallery in Paris. The success of this exhibition ended up in multiple art shows in various cities in Europe traveling between Geneva and Berlin from 1907 to 1909. At that same year he went to Prague to spearhead his own art show there. Among his many art exhibitions Bourdelle found the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913 in New York as the most significant one and was followed by the 1914 Venice Biennale.
Bourdelle’s participation in the Armory Show New York gave him an opportunity to meet the founder of the Parisian Salon des Tuileries. Four years earlier this event he was awarded the Night of the Legion of Honor and quickly upgraded his status as the Officier of the Legion in Honor in 1919 and up to Commander of the Legion of Honor by 1924. Apparently, Bourdelle had developed a commanding status among his social circles, which must be enough to receive major commissions during the 1920’s.
During the said period, he was asked by the Theatre des Champs-Elysees to produce a set of reliefs for its façade. This has to be Bourdelle’s moment for exploring architecture and other art medium as he also did some theater decorations at the time. The walls were decorated with books, six reliefs, and two sketches that depict the Meditation of Apollo, Sculpture and Architecture, The Tragedy, Dance Music and Comedy. Also, he executed an equestrian monument depicting General Alvear in Buenos Aires around 1913 to 1923 and then another monument to honor Thadeusz Mickiewicz in Paris.
Under Rodin’s tutelage, Antoine Bourdelle learned how to use tools, treat surfaces and finishing touches, and sculptural accents. His master’s teachings would become evident on some of his early works during the early 20th century especially when he intended to evoke rough stone features on the figures. The two shared a long-term professional relationship, which led to Rodin appointing the assistant as his director at the workshop.
However, as many student-mentor relationship normally ends up in the art field, Bourdelle wanted to develop his own distinctive style. At the turn of a new century he slowly detached himself from the influences of Rodin, having been nick-named as “the half-Rodin” for several years, by pursuing a more independent career path. He started accepting public commissions by the Montauban officials and private individuals.
From late 1880’s to early 1910’s, Bourdelle had been producing large busts of famous public figures such as Leo Cladel, Tarn-et-Garonne, and Francois Mouleng, all of whom were Montauban natives. During this period he also went on working for the city as he was commissioned to execute a major monument to commemorate the patriotism of the Montauban defenders during the Franco-Prussian War. His artistic style was reminiscent of expressionism methods showing the figures in their monumentality, perfect composition while the spatial setting is greatly considered, and his originality in the way he incorporated the right characteristics of each figure.
The body of his mythological characters are shaped in muscular form combined with the tension shown in their posture and facial expression. He found the formula to producing a sculpture with perfectly balanced integration of space and solids. However, the design is kept simple and straightforward.
In other words, Bourdelle’s sculpture became more focused on harmony, order and measurement derived from classical art. His Hercules the Archer could be used as the finest example, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1910. Ever since then, Bourdelle’s career turned up and art critics began to give the kind of attention his magnificent works rightfully deserved.
From 1914-’18 the city of Montauban contracted Bourdelle again to produce War Dead monument. The sculpture evokes triumphant France. There was even a plaster study made by a local museum for this commission in order to execute the head of France perfectly. At this point, his style remained inspired by archaic Greek art but with mastery of form and harmony to be able to evoke a higher magnitude of beauty instead of feelings and emotion.
During the last few years of his life he traveled around the United States to attend various exhibitions there. He also went to Brussels to see the Palais des Beaux-Arts exhibition of 1928. Antoine Bourdelle died on October 1, 1929 in his home at Vesinet, Paris. His remains were buried at the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.