The Arc de Triomphe is a "modern" monument based upon the architectural heritage of Ancient Rome. This giant arch was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to honour those who had fought for the glory of France. Jean François Chalgrin was the appointed architect of this monumental structure which is like a cathedral in both its size and its sculptural adornement. Construction of the arch, abandoned during the Restoration, was in fact completed in 1836 by Louis Philippe. The surrounding square with its radiating avenues was Hausmann's invention of 1854. Of the five sculptors involved in the statuary of each facade it is Rude who is best known, made famous by his masterpiece - "the Departure of the volunteers in 1792", more commonly known as "la Marseillaise" that faces the Champs-Elysées.
Considered the "greatest French sculptor of the (Romantic) period" (W. Vaughan, Romantic Art, p. 270), François Rude began his artistic career as an admirer of David. Like David he was an ardent Bonapartiste and in 1814 followed him in exile returning to France in 1828. In spite of his rigorous classical training his Departure of the Volunteers is an homage to former heroism sculpted in the expressive language of the Romantic movement. The absolute civic theme is that of the sacrifice of each individual to protect "la Liberté" being the keystone of the nation. The female winged figure is the "génie de la guerre" sending forth her battle cry to rally the volunteers.
"La composition dynamique, equilibre et persuasive et digne de David; la puissance des figures et les contrastes d'expression un peu brutaux, ou plûtot sans concessions envers la bienséance, évoquent Géricault; il y a du Gros, voire du Delacroix, dans certaines details pittoresques...le sculpteur devient poète dans une forme d'art austère dont le materiau exige une stupefiante virtuoisité..." (D. Rabreau, "La Sculpture Français au 19ème siècle",Paris Grand Palais, April 10 - July 18, 1986. Sylvestre depicts Rude matter-of-factly. In this realist and anecdotal work the sculptor's relaxed pose contrasts with the dramatic and violent figure behind him. Rude is the artisan as much as the artist, taking a break to smoke his pipe as if unaware of the legendary masterpiece he is creating.