Angela Gregory and Antoine Bourdelle in Paris

img483

A Dream and a Chisel is the memoirs of Angela Gregory (1903-1990), one of Louisiana’s leading artists and an honoured sculptor of public statues and busts. Gregory is a link to the past. She trained in the Paris atelier system developed in the Nineteenth Century. Born into an age of steam trains and telegraphs, Gregory trained in Paris before the Great Depression and died in an era of satellite television and computers.

This book is an amalgam of extracts from Gregory’s contemporaneous diaries and letters, augmented by many interviews with Nancy Penrose, which were conducted throughout the 1980s. Penrose and Gregory collaborated on the manuscript and finished it shortly before Gregory’s death in 1990. Gregory intended the memoir to centre on Bourdelle, the teacher she revered, hence the focus on her Paris years. The tone is lively, reflective and candid. We get a sense of her character, as well as her attitudes during the 1920s and her reflective perspective in old age. Extensive footnotes by Penrose identify many of the individual artists mentioned and supply biographical data.

This book describes the three years that Gregory spent in Paris, but there is sufficient commentary to explain the trajectory of her life. Gregory was born into a cultured middle-class family in New Orleans. Her father was a university professor and her mother was a successful artist who had stopped working to raise her children. Gregory was trained in art at Newcomb College, New Orleans. However, she wanted more. Despite the good reputation of Newcomb, Gregory was unsatisfied. She wanted to experience the most advanced art of the period first hand. She had her heart set on studying in the studio of Bourdelle. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was the leading sculptor of his generation. He was widely admired and considered to have taken on the mantle of Rodin, with whom he had studied. Bourdelle produced numerous large works, mostly modelled and cast in bronze. He was also viewed as a Modernist, who combined expressiveness with the influence of archaic art, which gave his sculpture added vitality. His giant studio in Paris was a hive of activity, with numerous assistants working on maquettes, carvings and giant models in plaster.

In 1925 Gregory was granted funds to travel to the Paris. She arrived in June 1925 and commenced attendance at the Paris branch of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design). In the spring of 1926 she worked up enough courage to knock on the door of the master. A maid gave her his telephone number and she called to arrange a brief meeting. Meeting a young American woman who wanted to learn stone carving piqued the master’s interest and he agreed to take her on. This made Gregory the only American student to work in his private studio. Leaving Parsons, she worked in Bourdelle’s studio in tandem with instruction at Académie de la Grande Chaumière (where Bourdelle taught).

The memoirs include some of the standard staples of bohemian Paris. She saw Josephine Baker dance. “When I was in Bourdelle’s studio, however, and taking classes at the Grande Chaumière, I would occasionally run across to the [Café du] Dôme for a quick cup of coffee to get warm while the model was taking a break from posing.” She evocatively the experience of studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. “There was a concierge at the door from whom I bought several little aluminium admission tickets to the modeling and sketch classes. I walked into the classroom and found it filled with students of all nationalities. The cigarette smoke was so thick it was hard to see, but a strong spotlight was leveled at one of the best models I had seen in Paris.” The school was “open” and did not monitor attendance strictly and students kept their own hours (or failed to keep them). Students without masters brought their own materials and came for a place to work, access to models and the chance to have work corrected by established artists.

Bourdelle was only five feet four inches tall, bearded and dressed in clothes of his own design. He was modest in character and full of dignity, which impressed the young American. He described his students as confrères (colleagues) and refused to accept payment from Gregory. Gregory recalled Bourdelle’s critiques as incisive, considerate and marked by humour. He did not seek to mould artists in his own image but to bring out the character of the young artist. According to Gregory, Bourdelle described advice he got from Rodin. “’But you should exaggerate, exaggerate.’ But you cannot exaggerate until you know what you are exaggerating. ‘You cannot make a centaur until you can make a man.’”

Gregory was assisted by a Swiss instructor at Bourdelle’s studio, named Otto Bänninger. Bänninger would become the husband of Germaine Richier; when Gregory met him, he was friends with Alberto Giacometti. Gregory and Giacometti worked in Bourdelle’s studio at the same time but she never met him, something she regretted in years to come. A fellow student was Jeanne Bergson, the deaf daughter of philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was impressed by the sculptor’s generosity towards Jeanne and Bourdelle’s ideas. Bergson arranged a meeting and the men became fast friends.

The book describes Bourdelle’s skills, methods and attitudes. Gregory characterises his approach as architectural and forceful, contrasted against Rodin’s art as naturalistic and sensual. Bourdelle emphasised feeling over talent, though he proffered constructive practical criticism. She writes that his fair direct comments prepared her for professional life dealing with committees. She describes the origins of his most famous statue – Hercules the Archer (1910). The model could only pose for ten hours so Bourdelle had to work fast on the maquette. The man was later killed in the Great War. It is a testament to the admiration Bourdelle generated that Gregory’s first thought when considering her memoirs was to memorialise her master rather than herself. Our admiration for both Bourdelle and Gregory increases as we read more. Evidence of Bourdelle’s respect for his student is apparent in his copying of an original portrait bust by Gregory. His version adds his qualities. Bourdelle was very supportive and arranged for exhibition opportunities and wrote a letter of warm recommendation. Bourdelle had no prejudice against female students. It is striking that when he was photographed at the Salon of 1928, the students around him are almost all women.

Gregory returned to New Orleans in 1928 while her art was on display at the Paris Salon. She embarked on a long a successful career. She made a speciality of portraying black subjects, treating them in a particularly sympathetic manner. She later ascribed some resistance to these pieces to a racially conditioned aversion to black portrait subjects. Some examples of those, and publicly commissioned decoration and monuments, are reproduced in the book. A check list of over 100 of Gregory’s sculptures is given in an appendix. In 1941, she was appointed state supervisor for the WPA Louisiana Art Project. Aside from her many commissions and exhibitions, she taught and was a participant in a number of organisations. She was inducted into the Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1982 and received other awards.

What about Gregory’s life as a woman artist? She was encouraged by her family. She admired her mother’s ability as a potter; she was taught by a female art teacher (whom she notes by name) and was inspired by a woman sculptor (whose name she did not remember but Penrose has discovered was Clyde Giltner Chandler (1879-1961)). Although professional women artists were uncommon, by her testimony, Gregory encountered disapproval and disappointment rather than hostility and opposition. She was accepted to study in the studios of Newcomb, Parsons and Bourdelle, France’s most prestigious sculptor. Nowhere in her narrative does she note that she was refused entry or service, dismissed or barred from acting like her male colleagues. Within her chosen field, she was considered a novelty because of her nationality and gender. While that patronisation might have been irksome it did not prevent her progress. On the contrary, she comments that some individuals offered her favourable treatment precisely because of her nationality and gender. In the USA, she won grants, commissions, awards and held exhibitions. She was entrusted a senior position in the WPA. One should not assume any of this was easy; Gregory was clearly an unusually determined and adept as a professional artist.

Overall, the book paints a vivid picture of Angela Gregory, Antoine Bourdelle and the Paris art world of the 1920s. Special commendation must go to the designers for the attractive and clear layout. The cloth cover is handsome. A Dream and a Chisel has the appearance fitting a classic book describing the excitement of an American artist at the epicentre of Parisian Modernism.

 

Angela Gregory, Nancy L. Penrose (ed.), A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, University of South Carolina Press, 2019, cloth hb, 248pp, 25 mono illus., $39.99, ISBN 978 1 61117 977 4

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com