American sculptor Angela Gregory (1903-1990) considered her acceptance into the personal studios of Antoine Bourdelle in April 1926 to be a miracle. She had obtained the unlisted phone number of the Bourdelles’ home and screwed up her courage to call and ask directly if she could come study with the great sculptor, a dream she had held for several years.
As Angela describes in the book we wrote together, A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, “Madame Bourdelle answered the phone and said wearily, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to study with your husband because I think he is the greatest sculptor in the world.’ Her voice picked up a bit and she said, ‘Why don’t you go to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where he teaches?’ I said that I could go there and work from a model, but I would never learn to cut stone at the Grande Chaumière. ‘You want to cut stone?’ she said excitedly. ‘A woman and an American and you want to cut stone? My husband will want to meet you. Can you be at the studio at 4 o’clock? But you have to promise me that you won’t stay more than ten minutes.’ Whenever Angela told this story, she would then pause before she said: “I stayed for more than two years!”
After only a very brief interview with Antoine Bourdelle, he instructed her to begin attending classes at La Grande Chaumière in the mornings and to come work in his studios in the afternoons. There she learned the mises-aux-points stonecutting technique from his praticien, Otto Bänninger, and had nearly daily contact with Bourdelle himself. Angela Gregory would become the only American to study with Bourdelle in his personal studios, and she would build lifelong friendships with members of his family, including Madame Bourdelle. Angela’s years in the studios on Impasse du Maine were the foundation of her successful six-decade career as a sculptor in Louisiana, launched when she returned home to New Orleans in 1928.
Toward the end of her time in Paris, Bourdelle invited Angela to exhibit two pieces at the 1928 Salon des Tuileries. One was the portrait bust of a beautiful young American woman named Adelaide McLaughlin. Bourdelle too had been struck by the young woman’s beauty and decided to do his own portrait of her. To save time, Bourdelle worked from an estampage created from Angela’s portrait in clay. Usually only Madame Bourdelle was allowed in the studio while he was modeling, but this time he granted Angela the extraordinary privilege of watching him modify the estampage, all the while explaining his changes. Bourdelle’s sculpture is called La Belle Américaine and the experience of watching him work was the highlight of Angela Gregory’s young career.
(1). Nancy L. Penrose is an award-winning writer whose essays have been published in many literary magazines and in anthologies.