Aristide Maillol was born December 8, 1861 in Banyuls-sur-Mer, Roussillon. In 1881, at the age of 20, he moved to Paris to study art and was accepted in 1885 into the École des Beaux-Arts, after numerous application attempts. At the École, he studied under Jean-Léon Gérome and Alexandre Cabanel. Technical skill and aesthetic quality were of the utmost importance to his academic teachers, and Maillol’s foray into tapestries was marked by a remarkable degree of both, gaining him recognition for revitalizing the art form in France. He opened a tapestry workshop in his hometown of Banyuls in 1893, operating it until 1895 when he turned his focus to small terracotta sculptures. During this time he was suggested by Paul Gauguin, a contemporary and friend, to join the artist group “Nabis,” an aesthetic school focused on an anti-naturalist, symbolist pictoral language. Maillol’s tapestries, early paintings, and sketches exemplify this aesthetic in their strongly contoured, simplified color shapes.
Almost all of Maillol’s work is focused on the female body in stable, classical forms. An antiquities enthusiast, Maillol produced drawings, lithographs, and woodcuts to illustrate antique literature. The appreciation for and study of ancient traditions is visible most of all in his sculpture, where he ultimately made his most ambitious works. In his sculpted nudes, the serenity of expression and harmonious balance of volume simultaneously reaches back to Hellenistic antiquity while remaining contemporary with the voluptuous forms of his peers, reminiscent of Gauguin’s women and Renoir’s later nudes. While academic in approach, the figurative qualities of Maillol’s larger work laid the groundwork for the ultimate simplification of form evident in Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore.
Maillol’s 1912 monument to Cézanne remains an important public commission, as he was often called the “Cézanne of sculpture” in his smoothing the path to abstraction for sculptors to come. He also constructed numerous World War I memorials. Much of his work is located in the Musee Maillol in Paris as well as at his home near Baynuls, which has been turned into a small museum. In the United States, his work can be seen in the grand staircase of the Metropolitan Opera House of New York, as well as the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art of New York.
Maillol died on September 27, 1944 in Banyuls as the result of an automobile accident.