Aristide Maillol (1861 - French 1944)

With the death of Rodin, Maillol was widely regarded as the greatest sculptor in France. Even before that, he was considered a powerful rival to Rodin, representing a classical poise, in contrast to Rodin’s dynamic romanticism.

Maillol was born into a family of artisans in 1861, at Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. He became a painter and printmaker. and a tapestry artist, closely associated with the avant-garde Nabi group, before taking up sculpture seriously at about the age of thirty. Acclaimed at the Paris Salons early in the century, and begins to attract commissions, notably for monuments to Zola, Debussy and Cézanne. These he treated not as formal allegorical or portrait projects, but as occasions to develop and steadily refine his style favoured subjects of full-figured nudes. He was supported by the important German collector and museum director Harry Kessler, and entered collections internationally, including that of Ivan Morosov in Moscow. He continued to explore the erotic and the classic through the inter-War period. Official German patronage made efforts to claim his allegiance during the Second World War, but he remained a-political, allowing political refugees to escape occupied territories through his land, and suffering from the Nazi oppression of his supporters such as Kessler.

In June 1902 Maillol had his first (and remarkably his only) solo exhibition of sculpture in France, at the gallery of the celebrated Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard. Hitherto Maillol had mainly produced terracottas but Vollard financed bronze casts for the exhibition. Having just turned forty and with a wife and young son to support, Maillol could at last begin to pull himself out of desperate poverty. The influential critic Octave Mirbeau bought one of Maillol’s bronze from Vollard’s exhibition and essays on Maillol began to be published. Rodin visited the exhibition and even bought a bronze standing figure from Vollard two years later (this work is still in the Rodin Museum, Paris). Maillol wrote a note of thanks to Rodin: ‘I am very touched by the fact that you have purchased one of my statuettes. It is a true reward...’ According to Mirbeau, who had written a book on Rodin and wrote the first monograph on Maillol, Rodin was eulogistic in his praise for the younger sculptor. Picking up one of Maillol’s sculptures and turning it around, Rodin reportedly said: ‘Maillol is the equal of the greatest sculptors… What is admirable in Maillol, what is, so to speak eternal, is the purity, the clarity, the limpidity of his workmanship and thought.’ Rodin particularly liked the fact that Maillol did not play to the crowd and make his work demonstrative in any way. Maillol, for his part, proudly displayed a plaster cast of Rodin’s The Thinker on his mantelpiece.

A new model, Dina Vierny, provided a final burst of inspiration at the end of his life (he died in 1944), and she was responsible for siting his works in the Tuilleries gardens, and for setting up the Maillol Museum in Paris.

Recent re-assessments of modern art history, in recognition of the artificial dominance accorded first to Romantic, and then to abstracting tendencies, have again recognised Maillol’s importance and centrality to the development of twentieth-century art.

Aristide Maillol - The River, 1943
The River, 1943
Aristide Maillol - L’ Harmonie, esquisse, 1940 to 1944
L’ Harmonie, esquisse, 1940 to 1944
Aristide Maillol - Bather Putting up her Hair, 1898
Bather Putting up her Hair, 1898
Aristide Maillol - Back view of a Nude, c. 1900
Back view of a Nude, c. 1900
Aristide Maillol - Drawing of a Nude Girl, 1921
Drawing of a Nude Girl, 1921