Emile Antoine Bourdelle was one of the leaders of twentieth century monumental sculpture and was qualified by the iconic master Rodin himself as “a pioneer of the future”. Rodin became a great admirer of Bourdelle’s work, and in 1893 Rodin took him on as his assistant. He loved Bourdelle’s sculpture because of its personal nature and correspondence to his sensitive nature as well as his passionate and fiery temperament. The great philosopher Bergson admired Bourdelle's approach and his artistry:
“What strikes me as soon as I look at one of your works is that each part seems to contain the whole. Isn't that the mark of perfection?”
Bourdelle thought of sculpture in monumental terms with a real understanding of scale and was committed to executing public works. His sculptures were built, almost architecturally constructed from the inside outwards. Bourdelle’s appreciation for structure and natural form, combined with classical heroic themes and a modern, personal innovation, reveal an inner strength and quality of rhythm and force.
As noted by the French painter Maurice Denis,
“…Whether a symbolist or an idealist Bourdelle created expressive geometric shapes and he told stories; he was a dramatist, a lyric, epic poet…he molded matter into whatever he wanted the world to hear, be it grief or joy, anguish or truth, was or peace.”.
Unlike other academic sculptors with their moralizing grandiloquence and superfluous ornamentation, Bourdelle chose to depict rigorous structure and a powerful rhythm, likely reflective of his peasant past as in Bust of an Old Woman. The woman portrayed in this bust could potentially have been either a relative of Bourdelle or someone known to him personally. In his sculptures he wanted the expressive elements to be inseparable from the order and harmony of the whole. The bust has captured both the features as well as the personality of the sitter – an elderly peasant woman beaten down both from hard work and age. Here the artist's goal was to capture the whole and to recreate it, a very dissimilar approach to most of his contemporaries.
Arthur Curtiss James, Beacon Hill House, Newport, Rhode Island
Private Collection, Rhode Island