With the critical acclaim met by Héraklès archer, prémière version at the Paris Salon in 1910, Émile-Antoine Bourdelle had finally attained the success and recognition that he had sought since leaving the studio of Auguste Rodin. Bourdelle had spent several years with Rodin as a carver, and whilst his early work shows the influence of the older artist in both subject and execution, from the early 1900s he sought that heroic quality notable in his monumental figures, of which Héraklès archer is the foremost: '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, 'Émile Antoine Bourdelle, Heroic Post-Modernist', in Bourdelle: Pioneer of the Future, exh. cat., Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1989, p. 31).
Conceived circa 1909, the title refers to the mythological sixth labour of Hercules, in which he drives away a flock of monstrous birds that wreak havoc destroying crops near the town of Stymphalos. The idea of Héraklès archer resulted from a fortuitous meeting with Commander Doyen-Parigot at Rodin’s. This ‘cuirassier’ captain, of impressive stature and over-developed muscles, was a willing model for the sculptor. Impressed by his unusual physique, Bourdelle launched into the modelling, letting his hands work freely, with no predefined objective. The position of the limbs, the angle of the bow, evolved over the ten hours of posing that the commander recorded in a notebook. Maquettes followed one after the other, all sharing in common the daring posture and almost untenable balance that characterised the final Héraklès archer.
Although the commander’s face is identifiable in several of the versions, at the request of the model, conscious of his career prospects, it was altered for the final three stages (Petit Héraklès, Héraklès, Intermédiaire, première étude et Héraklès, Intermédiaire définitif). This face, 'this cruel and terrible head, which expresses fierce determination and shrewd calculation, the head of a cruel and grasping conquistador' (G. de Céli, Gazette de France, 14 April 1910), largely contributed to the success of the subject when it was first exhibited in 1910. The public was particularly receptive and the critics unanimously hailed Bourdelle’s work: 'Héraklès killing the birds of Lake Stymphale, by M. Émile Bourdelle, is not only the most important work in the Show but indeed one of the most remarkable and most audacious pieces of sculpture that we have seen in recent years' (E. Charles, Liberté, 28 April 1910).
The subject of the warrior was one that Bourdelle had previously explored in Rodin's studio for his first public commission in 1893, a monument to the heroes of Montauban in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871-1872. Their draperies and ancient weapons recall classical sculpture, but unlike their Greek and Roman forebears or indeed the example of Rodin, they were brutally formed to suggest the horrors of war. In contrast with this earlier work, the warrior pose in Héraklès archer has less to do with this severe martiality than with the great physical strength and simultaneous illusion of ease inherent in dance. Significantly, Héraklès archer was commissioned by Gabriel Thomas, promoter of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, who soon after also commissioned Bourdelle to execute the frieze for the decoration of the theatre in 1910. Héraklès archer was described by a contemporary critic as '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).
Bourdelle modeled eight studies for Héraklès archer, of which the present version, Héraklès archer, huitième étude dite "modèle intermédiaire définitif", is one of the most fully realized. The definitive version measures 98 inches (250 cm.) and stands in the grounds of the Musée Bourdelle, Paris.