St. Dominic’s life is on display in Stephen’s living room. Grand in its expression, it appears in a small painting on paper, only slightly larger than 2′ x 2′ unframed. It is in fact the colorful sketch for a much larger work — a mural on the wall of St. Dominic’s Priory in Washington, D.C.
Each section of the painting, and of the final mural, has meaning. The image is divided into seven parts, depicting seven scenes from Dominic’s life, from the center upper part where “God’s Hand puts halo around St. Dominic and drops into beggar’s bowl a star …” to the center lower part where “Two Angels lift the saintly pilgrim by his bleeding feet toward the stars in heaven.”
The painting was in the possession of Ludwig Joutz (1910-1998), an architect with the D.C. based firm, Thomas H. Locraft and Associates, noted for what today is often described as sacred architecture. In 1960, his company designed a new priory for St. Dominic’s Church. Construction was completed in 1962. On a lined office pad Joutz sketched the initial concept for the mural. That yellowing piece of paper remains with the painting, a painting that is signed and dated by artist Pierre Bourdelle (1901-1966).
Loutz must have treasured Bourdelle’s work. After he retired, he and his wife moved to Florida and with him he carried Bourdelle’s painting. Loutz, himself an artist, would sketch the interior of his home in Florida. In one drawing there on the wall is the same painting that Loutz’s son would eventually give to Stephen after his father’s death.
Ludwig’s son remembered his father meeting with Bourdelle as he worked on the mural but little else could he tell me and so my research began. Thankfully, there was quite a bit of information to be found online and in newspaper archives.
Born in Paris, France, Pierre Bourdelle was the son of famed sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. He studied under Auguste Rodin in whose studio his father worked from 1893-1908. During his time as Rodin’s chief assistant, his father taught the likes of Henry Matisse and Alberto Giacometti. One biographer notes that with Rodin, a young Bourdelle visited Europe’s great Cathedrals.
Eventually Pierre would move to the United States and set up a studio in New York. In effect, he stepped out of his father’s shadow.
In a 1934 interview, he expressed: “In France, a man is judged by what his father did or by his family tree. In the United States a man is judged by himself, his personality, his own work. In France, they offered me mural jobs because my father was a well-known artist. They did not even look at my work.”
A man of diverse interests and talents, he’d traveled the world studying the art of different cultures, observing the nature of different places. Over time, based on some of the things he’d seen, he developed a new technique that set him apart as a muralist.
Search online and you’ll find a wealth of information about his Art Deco paintings and sculptures from the 1930s and 1940s. His bold and vibrant work adorned the interiors of ocean liners, railway lines like the California Zephyr, and the walls of institutions like Union Terminal in Cincinnati.
He was a versatile artist capable of working with many media. For Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, he not only created exotic jungle murals carved in linoleum, he also painted the ceilings of several rooms using an electric spray gun on canvas.
For the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, he created murals for Food Building North No. 2. As described by a journalist covering the fair for Collier’s Magazine in 1939, “There was Pierre Bourdelle, stripped to the waist in the hot sun and covered with red plaster dust. Gobs of wet plaster, a good blank wall, tools in his hands. That’s all Bourdelle, pupil of Rodin, asks to make him happy.”
His design motif for the fair was described as low bas-relief representing Bacchantes reveling at a wine-harvest festival, mythological animals, and scenes of beverage-making in various cultures.
While not everyone appreciated his style, e.g. so many sinuous forms wrapped around each other, few could deny the provocative and captivating nature of his work.
When World War II broke out, Bourdelle felt compelled to join the war effort. He’d served in France during World War I. He’d been too young, only 15, but he’d lied about his age and was able to join an aviation unit. When his plane went down, he suffered traumatic ear injuries. A number of the biographies I found suggest that the horrors of that first war, the so-called Great War, influenced his art as no doubt did his participation in World War II. While unable to enlist because he was considered too old, he did serve in his own way, as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Field Service at the North African and Italian fronts.
In 1945, upon his return to the U.S., Bourdelle would produce a book of images, simply titled, War. For the foreward, Stephen Galatti , the Director General of the AFS, would write, “Overseas Pierre Bourdelle saw suffering. He did his best to alleviate suffering, driving the wounded soldiers of many Allied armies. Helping staunch and bind their wounds in the field dressing stations. He knows the agony of war. He has no fear of showing war at its useless worst. He is not only a personally brave man who volunteered to go, and went, wherever the wounded were. He is an intellectually brave man, who makes no pretense at hiding the bare hideousness of warfare. … They are not pretty pictures. They show nothing but reality …”
They may not be pretty but they are horribly beautiful. And as I perused all 50+ images, viewable online here, I could not help but be fascinated by Bourdelle’s evolution as an artist …
… seeing these works done in the 1940s and then …
… being able to look at the drawing he did in the early 1960s for the St. Dominic mural.
I suspect I will never see in-person the actual St. Dominic mural. First of all, it is in a monastery chapel. Second of all, it has been covered in an attempt, I believe, to preserve it from the deterioration of time.
During the latter years of his life, Pierre Bourdelle continued to work as an artist and as a teacher. He taught at C. W. Post, part of Long Island University, as an artist-in-residence. He died in 1966 while traveling with his family in Switzerland.
Sources and Additional Reading
Bourdelle Family History – http://www.mountharmonyfarm.com/GH-P-BourdelleItems.html
SS America Unique Story of a Great Ocean Liner/Bourdelle Page – http://www.ssamerica.bplaced.net/art2-en.html
Artwork for the California Zephyr – http://calzephyr.railfan.net/artists/bourdelle.html
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Art – Murals – Food Buildings – The Vineyard (Pierre Bourdelle)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 – 1945. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-7352-d471-e040-e00a180654d7
Collier’s, Volume 103, p. 16
Bourdelle Art for Dallas Fair Park – http://frenchsculpture.org/dallas-fair-park-1
The Glass Storybook and the Great Menagerie The Art of Winold Reiss and Pierre Bourdelle – http://www.cincymuseum.org/union-terminal/art
History of Cincinnati Union Terminal – http://library.cincymuseum.org/75th-anniversary/main.swf
Bourdelle’s War – http://www.ourstory.info/library/4-ww2/Bourdelle/pbTC.html
Bourdelle Papers at Syracuse Libraries – http://library.syr.edu/digital/guides/b/bourdelle_p.htm