Aristide Maillol - Biography and Legacy
French Painter and Sculptor
Biography of Aristide Maillol
Childhood and Education
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".
Maillol's childhood was a sad one and he suffered many losses (beginning at the age of ten when his older brother, Adolphe, died) which affected his temperament. Indeed, according to the account of the artist's muse and model (and, following his death, nominated executor of Maillol's estate) Dina Vierny, he was, "temperamentally different from the other children of his own age, [and so] he grew up a solitary child". In 1874 he was enrolled in a boarding school in a nearby town and was so lonely that his aunt was compelled to visit him once a week in an attempt to rally his spirits. It was at the school, however, that he was able to take art lessons and where he created his first proper painting at the age of thirteen; a landscape of Banyuls.
Personal setbacks continued into Maillol's teenage years beginning with the death of his father in 1877. His father's passing greatly reduced the family's already modest income and they were forced to live off produce from their vineyards which were then tragically destroyed by a phylloxera epidemic three years later. Despite these setbacks, Maillol left boarding school in 1879 to return home where he resolved to become a professional artist. Two years later he enrolled in art classes at the nearby Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Having fully committed to becoming an artist, Maillol, with the somewhat hesitant support of his aunt Lucy, decided he needed to study in Paris. He left for the French capital in 1881 with her pledge of a meager twenty francs a month allowance. Upon arrival, he took the entrance exam for the École des Beaux-Arts but failed (several times in fact) and so signed up to audit one of the classes being taught by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Two years later (in 1883) he enrolled in the École des Arts Décortifs but his financial situation was so dire his health began to suffer and he was repeatedly hospitalized. Of this time, Maillol would later write: "How did I manage? I was very ill and nearly died. Ill-nourished and rheumaticky and neglected, my resistance to disease was low and I spent long periods in hospital. When I came out I simple relapsed into poverty. Sometimes I thought I would jump into the Seine and finish it". His perseverance paid off however and in 1885 Maillol was finally accepted into the École des Beaux-Arts. It did not take long, however, before he grew dissatisfied with his training.
Despite his dissatisfaction with his formal education, Maillol made good connections during this early period leading to a shared dwelling with young artist Antoine Bourdelle. According to Dina Vierny, Maillol survived, "on cheese and milk in indescribable poverty with never even a few centimes for a beer". He was able to derive a limited income source after meeting Maurice Boucher who hired him to create stage sets for his theater. More importantly, he was exposed to his first exhibition of Impressionist and Synthetic paintings. The exhibition featured Paul Gauguin who would have a profound impact on the artist's future work. He said later, "Gauguin's painting was a revelation to me. Instead of enlightening me, the École des Beaux-Arts had thrown a veil over my eyes. Standing in front of the Pont-Aven paintings, I had a feeling that I too could work in that spirit. Right then I told myself that what I did would be good when it had Gauguin's approval".
Maillol's career began in effect in Paris and his time there laid the foundations for his future work. It was in Paris that he began exhibiting in salons in the late 1880s from where he received his first commissions. It was at this time that he also met artist József Rippl-Rónai which led to his role in the Les Nabis of painters. His early portraits would contain the large flat swaths of color and simply formed shapes characteristic of this art movement. In addition to Rippl-Rónai, he developed lifelong friendships with others in this group including his idol Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and Édouard Vuillard.
In 1892, Maillol became interested in tapestry and took lessons at Paris's Cluny Museum. After a short period of study, he exhibited his first work in this medium in 1893 and set up a tapestry studio in his hometown of Banyuls-sur-Mer where he hired two assistants, Angélique and Clotilde Narcisse. Having fallen in love with Clotilde, the two returned to Paris. They would marry in July of 1896 and their only child, a son, Lucien, would be born in October of that year. Clotilde had a profound impact on the direction of Maillol's art. He now had a wife and a willing model, and for the first time, nudes began to appear in his work.
Once back in Paris, Maillol began to create his first sculptures, initially carved from wood. It was his tapestries however that were receiving most attention. This was due in part to Gauguin, who in a published review of one of his exhibitions, wrote, "Maillol is showing a tapestry which is beyond praise". Another fan was Romanian princess Elizabeth Bibesco who commissioned a tapestry in 1897. Maillol was now able to set up his own house and studio in the Villeneuve Saint-Georges section of Paris and this became a gathering place for the Nabi group and others including Henri Matisse (who became a lifelong friend) and Pablo Picasso.
Unfortunately, the intense close-up work associated with tapestry caused great strain on Maillol's eyes, and fearing permanent loss of his sight, he chose to change focus. With regret, he turned his attention almost entirely to sculpting. Creating impressive work from the start, Maillol quickly transitioned from wood to bronze. He immediately took to the material, and in 1900 made thirty small statuettes. He also began working on the large-scale sculptures for which he would become better known. He had his first one-man exhibition in 1902 through friend and art dealer Ambroise Vollard. The exhibition was well received and with his new-found success, Maillol was able to move to Marly-le-Roi where he established a studio and built a house. He would spend the rest of his life dividing time between this home in the summer and his hometown of Banyuls in the winter.
Maillol's career was nurtured by the connections he made with fellow artists and patrons. For instance, his friends were responsible for securing several memorial commissions for Maillol. These relationships were reciprocal, however, and Maillol influenced those he associated with too. Most notably, he was responsible for a large aspect of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's oeuvre when in 1907, while watching Maillol sculpt his bust, Renoir was inspired to try his hand at sculpture.
It was Rodin who introduced Maillol's to the German Count Harry Kessler in 1905. The Count would become a loyal patron, responsible for key commissions including Maillol's La Méditerranée (1905). In 1908 the two men travelled to Greece where Maillol was influenced by ancient monuments and sculptures including those at the Parthenon and Propylea. In addition, Kessler founded his own printing press, and frequently commissioned Maillol to create drawings for his publications. Maillol's frustration with the paper he was working with led him to design and produce his own. In 1913, with backing by Kessler once more, Maillol opened his own shop to produce the paper under the supervision of the artist's nephew. Titled "Montval" the paper still exists today.
Kessler was responsible, albeit unintentionally, for some damage to Maillol's reputation. In 1914, on the precipice of the outbreak of the First World War, Kessler sent a cable to Maillol instructing him to bury his statues so that they would not suffer any damage. This letter led to French officials investigating Maillol for treason although the charges were ultimately dropped. In addition, two articles were published that questioned Maillol's loyalties and his close connections to his German patron. This coupled with his son being conscripted into battle caused Maillol to sink into depression and he would not create any new work for the duration of the war. At the war's end, and on his son's safe return, Maillol started to emerge from his depression. Creating again with a renewed energy, he received numerous commissions including monuments to honor France's fallen soldiers in the towns of Banyuls-sur-Mer and Port-Vendres as well as a statue dedicated to the honor of the French master, Paul Cézanne.
With increased success and attention abroad, including a one-man exhibition in Buffalo in 1925, Maillol turned to travel once again. In 1929, he journeyed to London and Germany where he had the opportunity to meet Albert Einstein. A year later he returned to Germany with Kessler where he was introduced to numerous gallery and museum professionals and in 1936 he travelled to Italy where he was overwhelmed by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.
Maillol's art was deeply impacted in 1937 when he received a letter from a friend telling him of a young woman, Dina Vierny, who strongly resembled his ideal figural type. Excited at meeting such a person, Maillol wrote to Vierny: "Mademoiselle, I am told that you look like a Maillol or a Renoir. I'd settle for a Renoir". Intrigued, Vierny agreed to travel to meet with the artist and the two began a working relationship with her serving as Maillol's sole model for the rest of his life. She even moved into a house near the artist, despite his wife's displeasure at the arrangement. With a renewed sense of direction came a renewed sense of energy for life and, according to author Bertrand Lorquin, "toward the end of his life he would go on long tramps in the mountains, where his gaunt erect figure would become a familiar sight", observing that the artist "always wore a long light-brown or beige jacket with a cap or soft hat in matching tones". Later still he would favor a beret that coupled his most remarkable feature, a long gray beard.
As in the early years of Maillol's life, his last decades were filled with loss and unhappiness. He saw the death of many friends including Kessler in 1937. The outbreak of the Second World War also had a profound impact on him. He was, in effect, trapped in Banyuls, but he continued to work and according to Vierny he was working an average of ten hours each day. Once more, a mistake in judgement led to rumors that negatively impacted Maillol's reputation. German officers often wanted to visit his work and Maillol had no choice but to let them into his home. Then in 1942, he was invited to the opening of an exhibition in Paris of an artist, Arno Brekker, who was one of the Nazi sanctioned sculptors. According to Lorquin, Maillol, "made the mistake of accepting, mainly because it gave him an opportunity to cross over into the occupied zone and visit his studio at Marly-le-Roi to check on the state of the sculptures he had been obliged to abandon there. He was totally unaware of the political significance of this act, which was bitterly held against him. Later, he was wrongly accused of having collaborated with the Germans".
The fact of the matter was that Maillol played a key role in helping to stop the spread of Nazism. Hard at work in his studio in Banyuls, according to Lorquin, Vierny, "informed him of her activities in the Resistance and her efforts to help people wanted by the Germans to flee France [Maillol] immediately offered to let her use his studio in the village of Puig del Las as a refuge. He also showed her safe passage over the Pyrenees, and in fact the first clandestine network to spirit people across the border into Spain was called "le réseau Maillol" (the Maillol network).
On September 15, 1944 while travelling to visit artist Raoul Dufy, Maillol was in an automobile accident. He died twelve days later due to complications from his injuries. Amongst his unfinished works was a figure called Harmony; a sculpture that was destined to become one of his signature works.
The Legacy of Aristide Maillol
Aristide Maillol helped alter fixed ideas about modern sculpture. Looking back in history to the idealized forms of classical sculpture, he created modern works that were not committed to capturing impressions of motion. Rather than striving to render the "living" figure, Maillol created what author Bertrand Lorquin called "pure sculpture based on the body's architecture and on a harmony between volumes".
His drive towards more idealized, simplified, forms provided the foundation for the next generation of sculptors. For Lorquin, indeed, Maillol had "rediscovered simplicity and was, with the Cubists, one of the pioneers of abstraction and modernism in sculpture". His influence can be traced in the sculptures of Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and Henry Moore. The argument could be made with some conviction that Maillol pre-empted the purer abstract forms preferred by contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, Joan Miró, Isamu Noguchi, and Franz West.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Vierny set up her own art gallery. As well as maintaining a fine collection by Western and dissident Soviet artists, she continued Maillol's legacy by establishing the Dina Vierny Foundation, leading eventually to the creation in 1995 of the Foundation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol in the left-bank rue de Grenelle. Maillol's former home in the family vineyard above Banyuls also houses a Maillol museum.