French Sculpture Census

BOURDELLE, Pierre
Paris 1901 - Geneva, Switzerland 1966
Gender: M
artist ©: Fair Use (Section 107, Copyright Act, 1976)

French Sculpture Census, biography by Anne-Laure Garrec, Ecole du Louvre intern, 2011:
Pierre Bourdelle, son of the celebrated sculptor Émile-Antoine Bourdelle and the painter Stéphanie Van Parys, was born in Paris on April 21, 1901. Unlike many of his peers, he did not take classes at the School of Fine Arts in Paris (École des Beaux-Arts). The future artist learned techniques for sculpting in plaster, wood, and marble by working with his father, whose art and artistic thinking were influenced by Auguste Rodin.  Far from wishing to make of his son a sculptor like himself, Antoine Bourdelle encouraged the young man to try working in other artistic mediums, such as stained glass or mosaic. If the elder Bourdelle took his son to Greece so that he could study ancient sculpture, he entrusted Rodin with the responsibility of introducing his son to Gothic architecture in Europe. Throughout his formative years, Pierre Bourdelle multiplied his experiences of the arts, and from these he developed his taste for art.
After the First World War, which Bourdelle would have joined when he was only fifteen by lying about his age, he traveled to Holland, Italy, and Africa in order to learn new artistic techniques. In Rotterdam the young artist learned batik, a printing-on-cloth technique traditionally practiced in Indonesia and Africa, while in Florence he discovered iron-working. These travels and contacts with other cultures would, in truth, develop his artistic inspiration. Moreover, he would hold in his memory a vivid impression of the plants and animals of Africa, which would find expression in many of his creations. Once Bourdelle returned to France, he undertook various commissions in order to ease his father’s financial burdens. In 1920, for example, he undertook an industrial-design commission before going to work with an iron-monger at Suresnes, a community in the western suburbs of Paris.
According to correspondence maintained at the Bourdelle Museum in Paris, Pierre Bourdelle served in the French armed forces from 1921 to 1923. He worked for a while in aviation; later he became part of the occupying army in the Ruhr, a region of Germany. During this period, Bourdelle corresponded a great deal with his father. One discerns in these letters a certain restlessness and an incapacity to adapt to the demands of authority. Many times he expresses the desire to visit the colonies, be they in the Indian ocean or the Pacific, be it India, Cambodia, or the New Hebrides (a group of islands in the South Pacific, which now forms the nation of Vanuatu), in order to be able to devote himself more freely to the study of nature and to writing. Other than his interest in art, Bourdelle had a passionate interest in zoology, literature, and notably, philosophical texts. It appears that he obtained a Master’s degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne during the 1920s.
It is probable that these diverse interests caused his indecision about a choice of profession.  He envisioned himself as an artist, a writer, or even a journalist, but finally art won him over.  Despite his admiration for his father, between 1927 and 1929 Pierre Bourdelle undertook a number of extended sojourns in the United States in order to escape from the burden of his artistic heritage. He completed various commissions in batik, but, on the whole, these early visits were difficult. The death of his father created a veritable rupture in the life and career of Pierre Bourdelle, so much so that at that time he took a chance on undertaking a career as an artist in America and made a definitive move to the United States. His new life was made official in 1934, when he became an American citizen.
Regarding his personal life, Bourdelle married a young American woman, Katharine Salisbury, in 1927. Unfortunately, the couple soon decided to divorce, for it had become evident that it was impossible for them to live together. According to various sources, the divorce took place during the year of Antoine Bourdelle’s death, or two years later in 1929, at Reno, Nevada. This failure did not prevent Bourdelle from marrying, in 1932, Barbara Barnes, from whom he separated in 1939.
After having settled in New York, Bourdelle progressively began to make a name for himself by creating decorative frescoes in various buildings, such as the Chanin Building in1930 and the Unitarian Church IV in Brooklyn in 1932.  In 1931 he created a novelty by proposing the installation of sculpted and lacquer-painted linoleum panels in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. In these panels Bourdelle chose to evoke undersea life; the panel titled Swimmer and Shark depicts a man in combat with a shark. In 1931 Bourdelle again used lacquer-painted linoleum panels to decorate the public rooms of the Union Terminal train station in Cincinnati. These interiors define American Art Deco, a result of the synthesis of Austro-German modernism with French Art Deco, popularized by the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. The station’s exterior architecture presents a massive, pure aspect, close to the International style, while Bourdelle’s interior decorations are rich and shimmering. Here Bourdelle chose warm, vivid colors for representing the animals and vegetation of the jungle.
From 1931 onwards Bourdelle increasingly used lacquer-painted linoleum panels for the decoration of buildings.  Linoleum is an impermeable material consisting of cloth made from jute that has been coated with linseed oil and powdered cork (1). In an interview from 1952 (2), Bourdelle explained that linoleum is a particularly resistant material. For example, it is not affected by extreme changes in temperature. Such a material represented, in his view, a formidable compromise: it permitted a reduction in the cost of fabrication and, at the same time, it optimized the physical resistance of the work of art.
On the occasion of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, “The Century of Progress,” Bourdelle confirmed his desire to promote the quasi-organic relationship between edifice and décor. He executed, among others, some painted murals for the Science Building and some lacquered linoleum panels for the Dairy Building. He was also responsible for a fresco depicting the struggle between a panther and a serpent in the Administration Building. In 1935, on the recommendation of the architect Donald Nelson, with whom he had worked in Chicago, Bourdelle was recruited by George Dahl to participate in the artistic decoration for the Texas Centennial Exhibition in Dallas. Known as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist was commissioned to decorate the Pavilion of Industry, known today as the Pavilion of the Automobile, with eight frescoes and four bas-reliefs.  If Bourdelle was responsible for the total decorative scheme of the Pavilion of Industry, he had to share his responsibility for the decoration of the Centennial Building, situated on the opposite side of the Esplanade, with another artist. The eight painted murals in this building were executed by the Italian artist, Carlo Ciampaglia; the four cameo-reliefs representing land, air, rail, and maritime transportation are signed by the hand of Pierre Bourdelle. In 1938, Bourdelle again put to use his talents in integrating art and public buildings within the context of the New York World’s Fair. The Plaza of Nations, for example, was decorated with bas-reliefs of the products of the earth; Bourdelle’s contribution to the ornamentation of the exterior of the rotunda of one of the Food Pavilions was a vast, colored cement bas-relief representing Bacchantes reveling at a wine-harvest festival, mythological animals, and scenes of beverage-making in various cultures.
Along with his large artistic projects, Bourdelle continued to take on private and public commissions in the United States and abroad, as in Haiti. In 1934, he again executed some works in linoleum for Saint Anthony’s club in New York. The following year he created some frescoes on the theme of voodoo for the Hotel Sans Souci at Port-au-Prince. In 1937, the Commission for the Texas Centenary hired him to create two commemorative monuments that were installed respectively at San Jacinto and Laredo. In 1939, he sculpted, in collaboration with José Martin, five bas-reliefs on the theme of medicine for the Baylor Medical Alumni Library in Dallas. In the same year, twenty-six decorative, sculpted and lacquer-painted linoleum panels were affixed to the walls of the main dining hall of the transatlantic ocean liner, S.S. America.
During the Second World War, Bourdelle joined the allied forces and worked notably for the liberation of France. In 1941, he was sent to North Africa and later to Italy, where he served as a volunteer for a charity organization that delivered ambulance service at the front: the American Field Service. He later worked for the British army until the entry of the United States into the war in the month of December 1941. During his periods of rest, he devoted his time to transcribing on paper the cruel realities of war at the time of the siege of Tobrouk or during campaigns in Tunisia and Italy. Bourdelle created a total of fifty-two of these drawings, which were published in the United States in 1945 in a portfolio titled War. In 1946 the drawings were exhibited at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland.
After he returned to the United States, Pierre Bourdelle married Ruth Magor in 1946. From this union were born Stephanie Bourdelle in 1947 and Peter Anthony Bourdelle in 1948. The following year Bourdelle created a fresco titled Popocat[é]petl Asleep for the Hotel Prado in Mexico City. He also created numerous works in sculpted linoleum in trains belonging to the Budd Company in Philadelphia. Several bar fronts and steward’s podiums for the California Zephyr are decorated with panels representing fauna and flora. Panels of maps decorated the coffee shop and at least one steward’s podium, of which a photograph exists. Between 1952 and 1955 the artist will reiterate this experience by participating in the decoration of three other trains. Contrary to his work on the California Zephyr he drew inspiration from the American Indian culture in his decorations for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, the P.R.R. Senator and Congressional Train, and the Great Northern Railway.
From 1949 to 1950 Bourdelle lived for a time in Haiti with his entire family. During this brief sojourn, he worked within the context of Haiti’s Bicentennial Exposition in Port-au-Prince. He created numerous works, among which one must include some sculpted linoleum works representing flora and fauna for the entrance hall of the presidential palace, as well as bas-reliefs in colored cement representing the creation of the national flag on the Tower of Independence. This was the last time Pierre Bourdelle participated in a project for architectural decorations of such magnitude.
During the ten final years of his life, Pierre Bourdelle did not limit himself to sculpture. If in 1957 he created some bas-reliefs in metal for the Kohler Memorial Auditorium in Kohler, Wisconsin, however, in 1958 he renewed with the mosaic technique for Park Avenue Building, New York. He also continued his work in linoleum at the Priory of Saint Dominic in Washington, D.C. In 1961 the altar of the chapel was decorated with a relief that represented the life of the saint. At this time Bourdelle taught at C.W. Post College in Brookville, New York, where he was an artist-in-residence. Here, most notably, he created a work in bronze, Admiral Conolly’s Memorial, which was unveiled on December 16, 1962. In 1966, Bourdelle and his daughter Stephanie traveled to Geneva, Switzerland. They were joined shortly thereafter by Ruth and Peter Bourdelle. The artist needed to help Madame Marion Cartier-Claudel with a project involving a church window, however, Pierre Bourdelle died of a heart attack on June 5, 1966. Afterwards his ashes were dispersed at Oyster Bay, New York, U.S.A.
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