Aristide Maillol

Aristide Maillol

A multi-skilled artist, Aristide Maillol was a French sculptor known for his monumental female nudes. He was also a painter, book illustrator, and a tapestry designer but grew up dedicating himself to sculpture. He specialized in using three-dimensional depth of field for his sculptural works with female figures as his recurring subject. It is said that his works were mostly inspired by the Roman and Greek sculpture of the classical times and of Paul Gauguin.

Aristide Maillol ranked among the likes of Auguste Rodin, Manship, Giacometti, and Picasso. His sculptures are viewed by art collectors as great works of art and can be viewed at the best art museums in the US mostly. Years after his death, his works now carry a premium price tag yet his name is relatively unknown to the public. This could be due to the fact that his art was both classical yet esoteric and harmonious in anatomical composition yet disturbing. Experts say that a display of these dichotomies can only be achieved by a brilliant artist.

Maillol’s female nude sculptures were treated with classical approach on balanced platforms. Not only do these works are derived from classical inspiration but are also a precursor to the simplistic styles of Henry Moore. His works brought a new light to the rigid classicism of the previous artistic movements by introducing a more serene and simple approach to traditional sculpture. This novel approach would set the standard for Western sculpture until the mid-20th century.

To name a few of Maillol’s important works in sculpture, they include Air (1938), The Night (1920), Bas Relief terracotta (1913), and Seated Woman (1900).

Early Life

Aristide Maillol was born on December 8, 1861 in the small town of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Roussillon, France. Little is known about his early years but he undoubtedly wanted to become a painter at a young age. In 1881, he went to Paris to undergo an arts training by the premier Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, it was only after three years when his application had been finally accepted, and during those years he lived in extreme poverty.

As a pupil, he was trained rigorously under the tutelage of Alexandre Cabanel. The rigid neoclassical teaching approach was too much to bear by the young Maillol. Although he was mentored by Cabanel, the master Pierre Puvis de Chavannes had more influence on his early works. He also grew too fond of the works by the Nabis Group and Paul Gauguin. In fact in 1894 he joined the Nabis group, during which he produced his first few paintings like the Woman and the Wave. The said painting was his way of responding to Gauguin’s Odine, suggesting how much influence the Impressionist painter had on him.

Early Career

Throughout the 1890’s, Maillol continued painting portraits inspired by the works of Puvis and Gauguin. In the Profile of a Girl, the overall painting shares some resemblance to Puvis’ from his decorative approach, field of depth, to depiction of light and color. These characteristics have greatly improved in his The Washerwomen of 1890, while his Woman with a Parasol showed some influence of the Quattrocento decorative painting.

As he delved deeper into decorative art, he developed interest in doing Gothic tapestry. He even established his own studio at Banyuls-sur-Mer in 1893 to do tapestry work. The tapestries are characterized by their decorative and flat compositions drawn across the surface. The colors are of bright and light variety using dyes derived from plants.

With Princess Bibesco support, Maillol’s workshop continued to operate throughout the 1890’s. He got slowed down by his eye disease that he contracted in 1900 up to the point when he needed to stop completely. Oddly enough, the discontinuation of his tapestry workshop had opened up a door of opportunity for him. This time he began doing sculptural works by first modeling ceramics and then turned it to The Wave, his earliest bas relief.

During his spare time, he made sure to produce sculptures. His early works were curved from wood blocks of small sizes and they come in flat figures, which was reminiscent of Art Nouveau. His succeeding works would portray the same characteristics such as in La Source and The Dancer. In 1899, he executed The Bather in which he noticeably developed his composition from flat surfaces to geometric and loose forms. This was also the time when he began producing small and nude figures in clay form with a goal to display less rigid construction.
In 1902, art dealer Ambroise Vollard sponsored Maillol’s bronze casting of his sculptural works. As soon as the work has been completed the sculptor exhibited his tapestries and bas-reliefs at Vollard’s art show.
Mature Works
As Maillol’s reputation grew, he stepped up his career by creating his first large-scale sculpture, a Seated Woman in 1900. His wife modeled for him in this sculpture and the first version appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1902 he resumed with defining a more unique version of his Seated Woman, also known as La Mediterranee, and became a part of the Salon’s autumn exhibition of 1905.

The Seated Woman of 1905 displayed formal beauty and certain degree of sensitivity in its form, as the composition looks tightened up as he wanted to create it from a single vantage point. The end-result was a perfect cube yet with simplified contours in the physicality of the figure. Leading artists like Andre Gide, Octave Mirbeau, and Maurice Denis were struck by the perfect and visual appeal of the sculpture. The three were convinced that Maillol was arguably a classic artist and a Paul Cezanne in the making.

Several art collectors like Count Harry Kessler immediately became an avid follower of Maillol’s works. He bought a marble form of La Mediterranee and other bronze statues from 1905 to 1907. In the following year, the art collector invited Maillol to accompany him to Greece where they have to complete a commission. They were to produce woodcut illustrations for Vergil’s Eclogues, the latest edition at the time.

For the said commission, Maillol was responsible for designing the initial letters of the Eclogues. The letters were then cut by Eril Gill and published by Kessler in 1926. This commission was then followed by some more book illustrations, some of which include Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (1937) and P. Verlaine’s Chansons pour elle of 1939. During this period, he kept gaining more and more clients and somewhere in between met Ivan Morosov, a prominent Russian collector. Morosov bought his cast of Pomona in bronze and then was asked to produce three more sculptures namely Flora, Spring and Summer.

At this point of his career, never did Maillol abandoned painting. He just diverted his attention and artistic inclinations toward sculpture which brought him success. In 1909 he produced The Night, Flora and Summer in 1911, Venus in 1928, the Memorial to Debussy in 1933, and Harmony in 1944. All of his sculptural works throughout the first half of 20th century had been figures of female nudes.

Old Age

During the last ten years of his life, he concentrated on executing monuments. His early monuments did not appropriate much appeal to impress the public audience, however. He produced a memorial monument of Louis-Auguste Blanqui which would be established at Puget-Theniers, Alpes Maritimes. The commissioners however thought that the work was too vulgar for their preferences, but the execution of the finished monument did still push through.

From 1912 onwards, Maillol began specializing in sculpting war memorials, during which he produced first three bas-reliefs for the town of Banyuls. He designed a triptych for Banyuls in 1933 and draped versions of bronze Pomona and a Cezanne monument. The last of the series has been revised after a sketch model Maillol made in 1900. It also served as a companion to Air (1939), and a part of the Monument to Aimen series.


Aristide Maillol died in his hometown on September 27, 1944 at the age of 82. The cause of death was due to a vehicular accident as he was on his way home during an inclement weather. The car slipped off the road and crashed. After his death, several of his works were seized by Musee Maillol in Paris founded by Dina Vierny, who was said to be the sculptor’s companion throughout the last decade of his life.