A Year: Day to Day Men: 30th of October

Working on the Railroad

October 30, 1861 was the birthdate of French sculptor and painter Antoine Bourdelle.

Emile-Antoine Bourdelle was born in Montauban, France, the birthplace of Ingres, on October 30, 1861. His early interest in sculpture was inspired by his carpenter-cabinetmaker father. In fact, many of Bourdelle’s earliest sculptural projects were in wood. A bust of the painter Ingres, completed when Bourdelle was just 15, won him a scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the nearby city of Toulouse. While in Toulouse he studied under the sculptor Maurette and executed numerous portrait busts before leaving for Paris in 1884.

The first years in Paris brought Bourdelle some success. He won an honorable mention at the exhibition of the Salon des Artistes Francais of 1885 and a medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Bourdelle enrolled in the studio of the established master Alexandre Falguière for a brief period before working first with Jules Dalou and, later, as a pupil and assistant to Auguste Rodin between the years 1893 and 1908.

Bourdelle’s study of the great ages of monumental sculpture led to his lifelong concern for the public function of sculpture and its relationship to an outdoor setting. In 1893 he began his studies for the “Monument to the Defenders of Montauban”, which commemorated the noble resistance of the people of Montauban in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Considered his first masterpiece, the monument took eight years to finish.

Elevated on a high pedestal in a public square, the figures possess a  severity and tautness combined with a powerful expressiveness that conveys the heroic struggle of a united people. Bourdelle’s first masterpiece was part of a general trend in the late 19th century that favored public monuments memorializing those who lost their lives for France and the newly established Third Republic.

The traditional bonds that linked sculpture with architecture also interested Bourdelle. In 1913 Bourdelle received another major commission to decorate the Champs Elysées theater with sculptural frieze panels depicting various aspects of the dramatic arts—Tragedy, Comedy, Dance, Music, and the Muses.

All the figures were couched in the style of Archaic Greek sculpture, but the static element of Greek sculpture was enlivened by Bourdelle’s fascination with the representation of movement and energy through the expressive use of line and straining bodies. In his panels entitled “The Muses”, Bourdelle’s striding figures seem to foreshadow some of the figures seen in the paintings from Picasso’s classical phase of the 1920s.

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