08 December 2013

Beauty Adorns Virtue: Aristide Maillol

Aristide Maillol - Portrait Of Madame Maillol, 1895, Musee Maillol, Paris.

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the French artist Aristide Maillol (December 8, 1881), so herewith a tribute, once again, to one of my favorite artists.

As I have argued  before, the paintings of the sculptor  Maillol (1861-1944) deserve far more attention than they have received since his death.  As one scholar of Maillol's work, Wendy Slatkin puts it: "many of the surviving paintings are beautiful and even impressive."  She then goes on to do that peculiarly annoying art historian thing by saying that they "occupy an admittedly less significant position than contemporary works by Gauguin, Denis, or even Serusier."   Apparently, there is an unspoken quota for " beautiful and even impressive" paintings and it has been filled by painters who are not also great sculptors because, I guess, that would be unfair.  The universe has spoken and it is not interested in Aristide Maillol, painter.  But ever since I acquired a poster for the exhibition Le Post-Impressionisme from the Palis de Tokyo I have wanted more.

Maillol's paintings are structured like  musical compositions;  that is,  certain aspects are subordinated to a dominant line or rhythm.   Maillol was part of a neo-classical movement that had its immediate origins in Gauguin and Cezanne, artists searching for a modern reinvention of the Renaissance relationship between humans and the landscape.    Maillol's portraits usually include some type of symbolic greenery. 

During the Renaissance, portraits were made for specific occasions rather than intended as the character studies they have since become.  When  Maillol looked for a model wedding portrait to celebrate his marriage to Clothilde,  his bride and fellow artisan, he turned as he often did to the Italians  for inspiration.  On this occasion he found it in Leonardo da Vinci's  Ginvera de' Benci.
Giorgio Vasari in Lives Of The Artists, which first appeared in 1550,  discussed da Vinci's  nuptial portrait of Ginevra and the symbolism of the juniper in the vegetal background and, in typical Vasari fashion, muddied the waters enough to keep generations of art historians busily buzzing.  

A similarity of facial features, around the eyes and mouth, may have brought Ginevra de' Benci to mind, but Maillol's ingenious re-working of the symbolic foliage in the background is a charming symbol in itself for the tapestry-making that brought the young couple together. . In Maillol's portrait the golden flowers of the tapestry cast a happy glow on Clothilde's skin.

Nude (Clothilde Maillol), 1898, Musee Maillol, Paris.

La Baigneuse (also known as The Wave) , tapestry, 1898.

"(T)he epoch of the tapestries was the happiest of my life."  - A. M.

The years in Paris had afforded Maillol many happy afternoons spent in contemplation of the medieval tapestries at the Musee de Cluny.  Upon his enforced return to Banyuls, Maillol conceived the idea of a tapestry workshop, that would employee local artisans and  produce his designs.  La Baignuese (above) has been called  "the most powerful decorative image ever created by a French tapestry maker."  The painting that preceded La Baigneuse is lovely also. While Maillol's Nude shows the artist's affinity with the japoniste aspect of the Nabu aesthetic, his  love for Clothilde simply will not let him flatten her presence to a mere two dimensions.  You can almost feel the brush caress the canvas. It is only a small matter, but I miss the blues and violets in the transfer from canvas to wool.  Maillol had decided to develop his own plant-based dyes for tapestry.   He liked to recall how he and Clolthilde would walk the fields of Rousillon, armed with a pharmicist's manual, as they searched for seeds and berries for their experiments in color.  Sadly, the tapestry years came to an end when Maillol suffered a debilitating eposide of temporary blindness and his doctors advised him to give up weaving. 

Maillol (1861-1944) was born in the village of Banyuls-sur-Mer  in Rousillon, an area nicknamed the 'French Catalonia'.  To his fellow artists, the sun-baked Midi explained Maillol's sunny disposition.
Maillol's father, a fisherman, was  away from home much of the time, and his mother seems to have been an invalid,  so raising the little boy fell to two maiden aunts.  After attending a lycee in nearby Perpignan, the nineteen year old Maillol arrived in Paris in November 1882, with little money but artistic aspirations.   Poverty and  deprivation were  the companions of his student days, but he also found a circle of friends in the Nabis,  particularly Maurice Denis and the Hungarian expatriate Jozsef Rippl-Ronai.  Characteristically, Maillol remembered the pleasures of that period:

 "We painted still lives, mainly of apples...I painted more apples than Cezanne, without ever having seen a Cezanne...It was the Age of the Apple. It was the epoch when we wasted our time." - A. M.

Maillol achieved a considerable success when the first solo exhibition of his paintings was held at the prestigious Galerie Ambroise Vollard in 1902.

Young Woman Picking Apples, 1894, ? Musee Maillol.

Les deux jeunes filles, c.1894, ? Musee Maillol.

Woman Sitting With A Parasol, 1895, ? Musee Maillol.

The Enchanted Garden, design for a tapestry, c. 1895, ? Musee Maillol.

La chaumiere aux cinq arbres, undated, Musee d'Art moderne et contemporaine, Strabourg.

Maison en Rousillon, c. 1895, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Paysage a Banyuls-sur-mer, c. 1895, tapis (tapestry), Musee d'Art moderne et contemporaine, Strasbourg.

For more about Aristide Maillol see From Here You Can See The Qauttrocento, posted on 23 April 2012.

Images: by Aristide Maillol from the collection of Musee Maillol, except as noted.

Below: Leonardo da Vinci - Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474-78
and the reverse side  with a wreath of luarel, palm, and juniper, inscribed with the motto Virtutem forum decorat (Beauty adorns virtue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Tom Sarmo said...

I really enjoy your thoughtful blog--thanks!

Anonymous said...

Another fantastic post - thank you so much.
I really, really, want to read all your posts in printed form!

Jane said...

Welcome, C.B.
Happy to know that you find enjoyment here.

Jane said...

Chris H., thank you so much. I enjoy hearing from readers!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I was in Perpignan the summer before last. Some of the real pleasures of the city are the Maillol sculptures scattered around the town. Not around every corner, but enough to be a normal part of the landscape.

Very pleasant to revisit Maillol's work in your post.

Tania said...

You are right, his paintings deserve to be better known, Maillol is presented most of the time as a sculptor. Wrongly, as you show it. Very beautiful, this "Nude"! Thank you, Jane.

Jane said...

Tom, how fortunate you are to visit there. I wonder which ones those sculptures are. Identifying the locations of the paintings is tricky as there's not always consistency in the attributions. For instance,the distinction between "Musee Maillol" and Collection Dina Verney" gets mixed up at times. Thank you.

Jane said...

Tania, yes the "Nude" portrait of Clothilde is luscious, isn't it. We would all be happy to be gazed at by such loving eyes.