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Aristide Maillol (French, 1861–1944)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French sculptor, painter, designer and illustrator. He began his career as a painter and tapestry designer, but after c. 1900 devoted himself to three-dimensional work, becoming one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. He concentrated almost exclusively on the nude female figure in the round, consciously wishing to strip form of all literary associations and architectural context. Although inspired by the Classical tradition of Greek and Roman sculpture, his figures have all the elemental sensuousness and dignity associated with the Mediterranean peasant.

Maillol first intended to become a painter and went to Paris in 1881, where he lived in extreme poverty. Three years later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts finally accepted him as a pupil, where he began studies under Alexandre Cabanel. He found the teaching there discouraging and his early painted work was more strongly influenced by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Paul Gauguin, and the Nabis group which he joined around 1894; the Woman and the Wave (c. 1898; Paris, Petit Pal.) is directly influenced by Gauguin’s Ondine (1889; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.). Maillol’s profile portraits, such as Profile of a Girl (c. 1890; Perpignan, Mus. Rigaud), are reminiscent of Puvis, and in his decorative approach to composition, rejection of depth and use of bright, flat areas of colour Maillol reveals his affinities with the Nabis. These qualities are even more apparent in The Washerwomen (c. 1890; Switzerland, priv. col.), although the monumentality of the Woman with a Parasol (c. 1892; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay) shows the influence of Quattrocento fresco painting.

Sharing the same interest in the decorative arts as the Nabis and inspired by Gothic tapestries in the Musée de Cluny, Paris—which he considered to be on a par with the paintings of Paul Cézanne—Maillol set up a tapestry workshop at Banyuls on the Mediterranean coast in 1893. His tapestries have groups of flat, decorative figures disposed across a shallow space, and they are coloured with bright vegetable dyes obtained from plants which Maillol himself sought out. The workshop, with support from Princess Bibesco, who bought the elaborate Music for a Bored Princess (1897; Copenhagen, Kstindustmus.) and several other tapestries, continued until c. 1900 when eye disease forced Maillol to discontinue. His portrait was painted at this time by his friend the Hungarian painter József Rippl-Rónai (for illustration see Rippl-rónai, józsef). Having also taken up ceramics he then turned The Wave into a bas-relief (destr.; plaster-cast, Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). In his spare time Maillol sculpted. His flat figures carved from small blocks of wood show the influence of the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, especially in such works as The Dancer (1895; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay) and La Source (c. 1896; France, priv. col.), which later developed into more geometric, elongated forms, for example The Bather (1899; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.). He also modelled small, bold nude figurines in terracotta, aiming at simplicity and density of construction. The dealer Ambroise Vollard made numerous bronze casts of them (e.g. Leda, which was much admired by Auguste Rodin, and Women Wrestling; both 1900). In 1902 Vollard gave Maillol his first exhibition, in which the tapestries and statuettes figured prominently.

In 1900 Maillol began work on his first major sculpture, a Seated Woman for which his wife posed, which was later named La Méditerranée. The first version (New York, MOMA), finished in 1902, was very close to his model. He noted, however, that it was not sufficient ‘to have a model and to copy it. No doubt nature is the foundation of an artist’s labours…. But art does not lie in the copying of nature’ (Puig, 1965). Thus he resumed work and the definitive version was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. He wanted the only meaning of this sculpture to reside in its formal beauty. With his acute sensitivity to form, he tightened the composition, which had been developed from a single viewpoint, into an almost perfect cube, simplifying the contours in the process. The sobriety and perfection of the form and gravity of La Méditerranée struck Octave Mirbeau and Maurice Denis as well as André Gide, who wrote (1905) of its ‘silence’. All three saw Maillol as a classic artist in the mould of Cézanne.

These qualities also attracted two collectors: Count Harry Kessler (Graf Henry Kessler) ordered a marble version of La Méditerranée (Winterthur, Samml. Oskar Reinhart) as early as 1905 (the French state did not do so until 1923: Paris, Mus. d’Orsay) and bought several bronzes, among them the Young Cyclist (1907) and Desire (1905–7). In 1908 Kessler took Maillol to Greece and c. 1910 commissioned woodcut illustrations for a new edition of Vergil’s Eclogues. The initial letters for the Eclogues, which was privately published in Weimar by Kessler in 1926–7, were cut by the English artist Eric Gill. Later books with woodcuts or lithographs by Maillol include Daphnis and Chloe (1937) by Longus and Paul Verlaine’s Chansons pour elle (1939). The Russian collector Ivan Morosov, his other patron, bought the first bronze cast of Pomona (example Paris, Jardin Tuileries) and commissioned three other figures in gilded bronze: Flora, Spring and Summer (all Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A.). Although Maillol did not altogether abandon painting, he increasingly concentrated on sculpture. Night (1909) was followed by Flora and Summer (1911), Ile de France (1910–25), Venus (1918–28), Nymphs of the Meadow (1930–37), the Memorial to Debussy (marble, 1930–33; Saint-Germain-en-Laye) and Harmony (1944), all of which are composed and harmonious nude female figures that contrast sharply with his unusually dynamic Action enchaînée (1905–8) and Mountain (1937).

Maillol was commissioned to execute a number of monuments, the first of which was poorly received. As part of the memorial to the revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui the Action enchaînée was erected at Puget-Théniers, Alpes-Maritimes, despite protests from municipal councillors that it was too extreme. In 1925 the town of Aix-en-Provence refused the memorial to Cézanne (stone; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), which a committee of artists headed by Frantz Jourdain had commissioned in 1912. Maillol also sculpted several war memorials. Three bas-reliefs were designed in the form of a triptych for the town of Banyuls (1933); of those memorials in the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Douleur (1922) in Céret is less original, echoing La Méditerranée, while the figures at Elne (1921) and Port-Vendres (1923) are recognizable as draped versions of Pomona and the memorial to Cézanne. The latter, reassembled after a sketch model of c. 1900, was also to serve as a point of departure for Air (1939; stone), part of the Monument to Airmen at Toulouse.

Maillol’s work is widely distributed in the form of bronzes and lead casts. In 1964–5, 18 large bronzes were placed in the Jardins du Carrousel, Paris, thanks to the initiative of André Malraux and Dina Vierny, Maillol’s last model.

Antoinette Le Normand-Romain
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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