French Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Aristide Maillol
Maillol is best known as a sculptor who specialized in statues of female nudes. His early career saw him excel as a painter and designer of tapestry and he became associated with the decorative Nabis group, where he fell under the influence of his great idol Paul Gauguin. He turned to sculpture in his late thirties (due largely to failing eye-sight) and it was in this medium that he truly stamped his mark on the history of modern art. Maillol avoided the flowing, romantic, sculpture of his famous contemporary, Auguste Rodin, focusing rather on a purer, more restrained, type of sculptural tradition that dated back to Classical Greece and Rome. He drew on the narratives of mythology, and focused his creative energies on sculpting the idealized female figure.
- Maillol turned to sculpture at a time when all emphasis was being placed on capturing movement. He is, through a return to classical principles, responsible for altering attitudes within modern sculpture. Maillol achieved this impressive feat by approaching the female nude, not as an active subject, nor as an object of desire, but rather from a more analytical position that allowed him to rethink current trends in modernist sculpture.
- Maillol's monumental figures closely followed Classical Grecian sculpture in the way they used the human body to explore relations between mass, volume, line, and contour. The fact that he reintroduced this more studied approach to modern sculpture was considered both audacious and original. By refusing to amplify movements and gestures, he was able to direct all his attention towards producing a simplified naturalism in his figures.
- As one of the Nabi group, Maillol opened up a range of new stylistic possibilities through his emphasis, in works such as The Wave, on the principles of color which he presented through his innovative patchwork technique. One finds in his early paintings his passion for experimentation that would characterize his sculptural works.
- The idea that Maillol produced works with an objective eye distracts from the fact that his sculpture could be allegorical. Indeed, works he produced in the lead up to the Second World War carried a real sense of apprehension. With The River, for instance, his figure contains an aura of terror which the viewer experiences by having to look downwards to meet the terrified gaze of his fallen nude.
- In his final pieces, Maillol produced (for the first time in his view) "works of art". In what appeared to be a response to the horrors of war, the artist focused on the natural beauty of the female form. In Harmony, his final piece, he sculptured Dina Vierny, his preferred model, directly rather than from sketches. As a result, this sculpture became more "alive" than his previous, more analytical, sculptures.
Biography of Aristide Maillol
Aristide Maillol was the second youngest of five children born to Raphaël Maillol and Catherine Rougé. Since his father, a draper, was often travelling for work and his mother showed little interest in his day-to-day upbringing, he was raised by his aunt Lucy and his paternal grandfather who worked as a fisherman. Even at an early age, Maillol loved the landscape and surroundings of the Mediterranean Sea town of Banyuls-sur-Mer where he grew up. Returning there often to live and work throughout his life, he once stated: "my village, which I love more than anything I have ever seen, has every resource to offer a painter - it's as if a golden dust had been scattered over the entire area".
Important Art by Aristide Maillol
Maillol moved to Paris in 1881 (aged 20) and from 1884 he had taken to returning home for the summer months. It was there that he "discovered" natural light, and between 1885 and 1886, he produced several paintings of old stone hillside houses from a high vantage point using impressionistic daubs of varying density and length.
The famous (last) Eighth Impressionist Exhibition of 1886 - which brought together works by Degas, Cassatt, Zandomeneghi, Forain, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro - coincided with the birth, through Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, of Neo-Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism immediately signalled the onset of Post-Impressionism and Maillol had been captivated by the works which he discovered at the Salon des Independants.
His early paintings of this period experimented with a combination of styles. During his summer jaunts, Maillol painted the facades of the village of Puig-del Mas experimenting with the Post-Impressionist style that borrowed from Van Gogh, Matisse, and Degas. These works had their own poetic quality but it was House in Roussillon that proved to be his first significant work. Maillol had, over two summers, finessed a markedly different approach to the landscape by bringing to the countryside the subtle pastel tones and delicate precision associate with Degas. Indeed, House in Roussillon is as much about the artist's delicate modulation of hues and light as it is about technical accuracy. The art critic Maurice Guillemot so admired this piece that he visited the artist in his studio, and while Guillemot implored Maillol to produce more landscapes in this style, the artist's future was headed in a different direction.
A naked woman, with long dark hair and her back facing the viewer, dominates the center of The Wave. Stumbling in blue-green water that reaches to her upper thigh, she seems to be at the mercy of natural forces. Indeed, the crest of a long wave, capped with a line of white foam, is travelling down towards her from the top of the canvas.
This work serves as an important example of the paintings Maillol created early in his career. It embodies the style of the Nabi group; most evident here in the vivid, large patches of color which make up the water and the flat forms of the figures. It is thought the painting was inspired by the group's leader (and Maillol's idol) Paul Gauguin. Maillol's fascination with the water, so much a part of his childhood, is also evident here. Acknowledging this he once wrote, "I do studies of the sea. It feels strange painting the sea, you never know what colour it is".
While Maillol is better known for his female nude sculptures, this painting provides one of his earliest explorations into the subject; which he was only able to do having found a willing model in his wife, Clotilde Narcisse. According to author Bertrand Lorquin, this painting may have been created originally with the intention of being used as a design for the stage; an artistic pursuit Maillol took up briefly during this period.
Typical of Maillol's small-scale sculptures, Leda features is seated nude female. However, her head is bowed; her body turned towards her right; while her left arm is raised with palm outstretched as if attempting to push away (rather than invite the gaze of) the viewer.
A narrative piece, this work, one of his earliest bronze sculptures, is Maillol's interpretation of the Greek myth in which the god Zeus takes the form of a swan in order to seduce the Spartan Queen, Leda. While the subject has been the source of great inspiration for artists, not least the masters of the Renaissance, Maillol's approach is the very embodiment of modernity. While his preliminary sketches and early drafts reveal an attempt to include the swan, in the final work we see that it has been removed. The forward-thinking approach to this work lies in the fact, as explained by author Bertrand Lorquin, that, "the only reference to the violence of the myth is the gesture of her raised hand repelling the god's advances with deep shame. There are in fact no overt allusions at all to the myth, which has been pared down to the delicate pose of a young girl leaning forward slightly to push back the ardor of an invisible god". Even as his sculptures became more ambitious in scale, it was the isolated form of the female figure who will be all that links the viewer to the original source of the myth.
Having been bought by one of his patrons, the French writer Octave Mirbeau, the sculpture made a strong impact on fellow Frenchman Pierre-Auguste Rodin. When the legendary sculptor saw Leda on display in Mirbeau's home, Rodin commented, "Maillol is as great as the greatest sculptors. In that little bronze, you see, he sets an example for everyone, the old master as well as the young neophyte. (...) What's admirable about Maillol, and I'll even say what is eternal about him, is the purity, the luminousness, the transparency of his technique and thought".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Aristide Maillol
- MaillolOur PickBy Bertrand Lorquin
- An Exhibition of Original Pieces of Sculpture by Aristide Maillol, 1861-1944By John Rewald
- Aristide MaillolOur PickBy Waldemar George
- Aristide Maillol and AmericaBy Aristide Maillol
- The Woodcuts of Aristide Maillol. A Complete Catalogue with 176 IllustrationsBy John Rewald
- A Sculptor's Obsession, A Model's DevotionOur PickBy Vicki Goldberg / The New York Times / August 11, 1996
- Aristide Maillol: The Sculptor, The Man and His MuseBy Bennett Schiff / Smithsonian.com / May 31, 1997
- The Woman in Red and the Legacy of MaillolOur PickBy Chris Chase / The New York Times / October 31, 2004
- An Interview with Dina Vierny, Model and Muse to Aristide MaillolOur PickIn this interview from 2007, Dina Vierny discusses her experiences as a model for Aristide Maillol. Produced for the Norton Simon Museum, she also discusses her working relationship with Norton Simon who was a passionate collector of Maillol's work
- Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)-Portrait filmé 1942 part 1/2Our PickThis video is part of a film, narrated in French and produced in 1942 which shows the artist, Aristide Maillol in his home and at work in his studio
- Exposition A. Maillol au musée Toulouse-Lautrec (A. Maillol exhibition at the Toulouse-Lautrec museum)This video provides a look at Aristide Maillol's works on view for the exhibition "Maillol, from the line to volume" at the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, France which was organized in honor of the 70th anniversary of his death and on view from April 5 through June 22, 2014