Aristide Maillol
Biography of 19th Century French Sculptor, Famous for Female Nudes.

Pin it

Mediterranean (1923)
Musee D'Orsay version

Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)

French sculptor, painter, graphic artist, illustrator, and tapestry designer, Aristide Maillol is best known for the classicism of his female nudes. Starting his career as a painter he switched to three dimensional works in about 1897, when his eyesight started to fail. His early sculpture - mainly wood carvings and terracotta statuettes - provided the foundation for his later work, most of which was ultimately cast in bronze. Influenced by Auguste Rodin, Maillol was also affected by Greek sculpture - largely after a visit to Athens in 1906.

Almost his entire oeuvre is based around the female nude. His most famous works include Mediterranean (1902, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Torso (1906) and the Cyclist (1907, Musee D'Orsay). Note: For the impact of Maillol on 20th century art, see: The Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30).

19th Century Sculptors (1800-1900)
Daniel Chester French (1850-1931)
Ernst Barlach (1870-1938)
James Earle Fraser (1876-1953)
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
Jean Arp (1886-1966)
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967)
Naum Gabo (1890-1977)
Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973)

For different types of 3-D
carving, see:
Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone
and other rock-types.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.

For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, by the best sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a list of the world's most
talented 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

Early Life and Academic Training

Maillol was born in Banyuls-sur-Mer, Roussillon in 1861. He determined at an early age to become a painter and in 1881 moved to Paris to study. He was initially rejected by the French Academy of Fine Arts, surviving in poverty until finally being accepted in 1885. At the Academy, he studied under the painter and sculptor Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) whose academic style included historical painting, portraits, Greek mythology and Orientalist painting. Maillol also studied with the painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) who painted classical and religious subjects in the academic style.

He found the teaching old fashioned, and instead took up modern art, including that of Paul Gaugin (primitivism) and Puvis de Chavannes. He also joined Les Nabis, a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists who lead a modernist style in fine and graphic arts in France during the 1890s. Other members of the group included Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Georges Lacombe and Maurice Denis. Maillol's portrait paintings from this time show influences of the group, with decorative compositions and flat areas of colour. You can also see an influence of Quattrocento fresco painting. Examples of his work include The Washerwoman (1890, private collection) and Woman with a Parasol (1892, Musee D'Orsay). The latter shows a young woman in profile standing in front of a seascape. The lack of connection between the figure and her landscape clearly indicate that the portrait was painted in the artist's studio. Maillol has painted his figure motionless, in a classical, decorative manner. Halfway between a portrait and an allegory, it is regarded as the masterpiece of his painting career.



Highly influenced by the decorative arts, Maillol was inspired by Gothic tapestry art in the Musee de Cluny (Paris). He considered the tapestries to be on a par with the paintings of Cezanne and Van Gogh. He was so impressed that he established his own tapestry workshop in Banyuls in 1893. The tapestries he went on to create were decorative, bright and highly colourful. His patron, the Princess Bibesco, bought many of his works, including the tapestry Music for a Bored Princess (1897). Maillol continued creating tapestries until an eye disease in 1900 forced him to take a break. He turned his attention to ceramics and sculpture instead.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate nineteenth century sculptors like Aristide Maillol, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.


At first Maillol carved figures in low relief from blocks of wood, displaying influences of Art Nouveau. The Dancing Woman (Musee D'Orsay), A Woman with a Mandolin (Musee Maillol) and a Woman Sitting in a Thoughtful Pose (Musee Maillol) are all examples of wood carvings from this period. However, Maillol found the process of wood carving too slow, so he quickly progressed to sculpting statuettes in clay. He also modelled small terracotta nude figurines. In 1902 Maillol came to the attention and received support from the famous art dealer Ambroise Vollard (who also supported other unknown artists in their early career including Paul Cezanne, Renoir, Louis Valtat, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh). Thanks to Vollard, Maillol found buyers who were prepared to pay for statues to be cast in bronze. This enabled and encouraged Maillol to focus solely on sculpture. In 1902 Vollard organised Maillol's first solo exhibition, which included his tapestries, figurines, paintings and first pieces of sculpture.

First Major Sculpture

In 1900 Maillol started work on his first major piece of sculpture; a Seated Woman later renamed Mediterranean. The first version of this work was completed in 1902 and is housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Not completely satisfied with his first attempt, he started on another version. The next version was tighter, developed to be viewed from a single viewpoint, and created in an almost perfect cube. Art critics at the time wrote about its 'silence', and stated that Maillol was a classical artist in the mould of Cezanne. It was exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in 1905, where the Fauvism movement exploded onto the art scene. The sculpture attracted the attention of wealthy patrons who ordered bronze casts, and the French government eventually ordered their own version in 1923 (now housed at the Musee D'Orsay). Other important examples of bronze sculpture from this period include Desire (1905-7) and The Cyclist (1907, Musee D'Orsay). Although Maillol mainly sculpted female nudes, The Cyclist is one of three male nudes he created, representing the racing cyclist Gaston Colin, his body rendered sleek and with well developed muscle tone. It is highly realistic, and some critics felt somewhat exaggerated.

Mature Works

In 1908 Maillol's patron, took him to Greece where he was able to study the classics. His mature work is dominated by studies of the female body. Other important works from his later career include Crouching Woman (c.1909, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg); Night (1909); Flora and Summer (1911); Spring (1911, Hermitage); Ile de France (1910–25); Venus (1918–28); Nymphs of the Meadow (1930–37); the Memorial to Debussy (marble, 1930–33, Saint-Germain-en-Laye) and Harmony (1944). Other works which can all be viewed at the Musee D'Orsay include Eve à la pomme (1899, bronze statuette); Femme assise sur ses talons (1900, bronze statuette); Jeune fille à la draperie (1921, bronze statuette); Pomone drapée (1921, bronze statue) and Jeune fille allongée (1921, bronze statue). Maillol's brand of simplified Classicism became an international style during the interwar period. It was a style that particularly accepted by the Facist movement. One of Maillol's pupils, Arno Breker (1900-91) was to become a leading sculptor of Nazi Germany.


Maillol died in 1944, in a car accident. Large collections of his works are maintained in Paris at the Musee Maillol and at the Musee D'Orsay. Where Rodin's sculptures were highly emotive and nervous, Maillol's works were silent. His figurative bronzes are seen as important precursors to the greater simplifications of Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore.

An important retrospective exhibition for Maillol was held in New York, in 1976.

• For more about the history and styles of French sculpture, see: Homepage.

Plastic Art
© All rights reserved.