Bourdelle did not have his first great success until he was almost fifty years old, when he exhibited Héraklès archer in the Salon of 1910. He began his career as a student of Jules Dalou and worked as carver for Auguste Rodin for fifteen years. Bourdelle's early work was strongly influenced by Rodin, who was the only sculptor at the time whose work provided serious alternative to the polished surfaces and easy sentiment of academic sculpture. By 1900, however, Bourdelle had established his own manner, as his sculpture moved away from the sensual, light-catching modeling of Rodin to an overtly heroic and monumental conception of the figure. "Whereas Rodin followed a romantic realist literary tradition which saw human frailty, misery and fallibility as absorbingly interesting and in some sense sacred, Bourdelle was beginning to express a contemporary yearning for a race of supermen" (D. Hall, "Emile Antoine Bourdelle, Heroic Post-Modernist," Bourdelle: Pioneer of the Future, exh. cat., Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1989, p. 31).
Bourdelle signaled his divergence from the aesthetic of Rodin and his followers in his Tête d'Apollon, executed in 1900 while he was still working with the older master. Bourdelle's emerging ideal was essentially classical in spirit, and it is interesting to note that Aristide Maillol, his contemporary, was also guided by the dream of the archaic past, although Bourdelle's art is vigorously active and heroic in contrast to the idyllic character of Maillol's sculpture. Bourdelle "preferred the architectural and spiritualized conception of Egyptian sculpture and Greek art of the archaic period to the idealism and the masterful and luminous modelling of the age of Phydias. He appreciated the 'ardent wisdom' of Romanesque and Gothic churches more than the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance" (M. Dufet, "Bourdelle the Forerunner," The Sculpture of Antoine Bourdelle, exh. cat., Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, 1970, p. 14).
Bourdelle worked on Héraklès archer in 1909. The model for the figure was Doyen Parigot, a career cavalry officer and an athlete with an imposing physique. Bourdelle actually found that Parigot's musculature was over-developed for his subject. Nevertheless, the pose proved to be extremely demanding, and Parigot was only able to hold it for a few minutes at a time. He recorded the duration of each session, which added up to a total of nine hours. Bourdelle accentuates the dynamism of the pose, and contrasts the rhythmic movement of the figure against the weight of the rocky plinth and the powerful arc of the bow. "The unbelievably audacious movement of this archer balancing himself in mid-air, supported against the ridge of a rock, that human form that even appears to leap in its immobility, that summary, precise, full and vibrant modelling is one of the most prodigious endeavours of living art. Here realism borders on idealism. A model may have sat for this anatomy but none could have given it this countenance or movement" (C. Morice quoted in D. Hall, op. cit., p. 28). The result is a symbol of a new humanity, in which man contends with powerful forces and strives to surpass himself.
Despite Parigot's dedication to his task, he was concerned that such public exposure would hurt his career, and in the place of his head Bourdelle substituted a version of his Tête d'Apollon. The gallant Parigot was killed in the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Bourdelle modeled eight studies for Héraklès archer, of which the present version is one of the most completely realized. The definitive version measures 98 in. (250 cm.) and is inscribed 'Heraklès tuant les oiseaux du lac Stymphale,' refering to the sixth labor of Hercules, in which the semi-divine hero shot the cannibalistic birds that flocked in a grove near the town of Stymphalus in Arcadia. When the first cast was delivered to the 1910 Salon a group of rival sculptors contrived to have it placed in a dark corner of the exhibition hall. Bourdelle then applied a gilt patina to maximize its impact. The success of the sculpture compelled the sculptor to create a second definitive version, only fractionally smaller than the first. A third full-scale version exists in plaster only.