23 April 2012

From Here You Can See The Quattrocento

The first time I saw Aristide Maillol’s Femme a l’ombrelle was on a poster announcing her presence at an exhibition of Post-Impressionism at the Palais de Tokyo on avenue Woodrow Wilson in Paris.  Having grown up near the Atlantic Ocean, I was pretty sure I knew what she was gazing at; now I’m not so sure. Maiillol painted the picture at Fecamp, a town on the Atlantic coast of Normandy, so I got  at least the ocean right. 

The woman in the pink dress appears to be standing before a photographer's backdrop of a seascape, rather than the sea itself.  This may be the key to Maillol's intentions.  Where a line separates the sky from the sand, there her right hand grasps the parasol; where sky and sea meet, there her hair springs up from her forehead.   Her left hand touches the brim of her hat, a gesture mimicked in reverse by the swirl of decorative ribbons trailing behind her.  Anchoring her in place is a band of gray across the bottom of the canvas that our eye registers as shade.  This gesture of masterful design registers on reflection when we realize there is no evident source of the shade.   What a marvel of classical composition this painting is.   In the words of Maurice Denis , written in 1943, Maillol has subordinated "all the graces of detail to the beauty of the whole.."

 "During a stay in Fecamp, where I was giving drawing lessons to a group of American women, I commenced a five meter wide canvas of them, entitled Far from the City.  These young women were beautiful, bursting with life and health; they wore large hats, following the style of that year; I made a considerable effort."  It seems Maillol originally intended Femme a l'ombrelle to be part of a mural that was never completed.  Nevertheless, the resulting work is his finest painting.



Maillol often expressed his admiration for the frescoes of Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.   We can see echoes of Ghirlandaio's  women in Maiilol's L'enfant couronne (1892), Le souer de l'artiste (1888) and even the very late Portrait of Dina Verney (1940).

During the medieval period an important distinction  was made between the left and right sides of the human body: the right side was superior morally, because guided by God, while the left side could be exposed to view, so brooches were customarily pinned on the left shoulder.

That preference for the left profile is repeated frequently in paintings of the early Renaissance, as is another stylistic gesture that Maillol often used - the half-portrait.  Together these devicesestablish a continuity between centuries, a grace and solemnity that  remained unaffected by Maillol's introduction to the avant-garde Nabis in the mid 1890s and his friendships with two of its members, Joseph Rippl-Ronai and Maurice Denis.  Indeed, Maiilol's portraits retained continuity throughout his long career, in contrast to the sensuous modernism of the sculptures Maillol is best known for.

Painted at about the same time or slightly before Maillol created the woman in pink, Madaemoiselle Faraill au chapeau displays a similarly deceptive background that is as an element of the portrait, not  a realistic landscape.  From this we recognize the link with the art of the early Renaissance, before landscape became an independent object of interest to painters.  Here, the bands and circles of yellow and green echo the tilt of the girl's hat and the pom-pom flowers that decorate it it.

The little girl crowned with a laurel wreath by the hands of an unseen woman is not only classical in its allusions, but classical in its economy of  means.  Her eyes are momentarily closed to the world she is about to discover, her  blue dress stands in for all the fresh colors of spring, and the yellow background is the brightening sun.   She looks like a younger version of Dina Vierny, Maillol's last model, a fifteen year old girl  the artist met when he was seventy-three.  It was Vierny (1919-2009) who assembled the extensive collection of Maillol's paintings and tapestries and founded the Musee Maillol, opened in 2005.

Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) died as the result of a car accident that happened while he was enroute from Banyuls-sur-mer to visit another artist friend, Raoul Dufy.

1. Aristide Maillol - Femme a l'ombrelle,  c.1891-1895, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Aristide Maillol - Young woman in profile,  1893, Musee Hyacinth Rigaud, Perpignan.
3. Aristide Maillol - Le soued de l'artiste, 1888, private collection, France.
4. Aristide Maillol - Jeune fille pensive au feuillage, 1893, Musee Maillol, Paris.
5. Aristide Maillol -  Mademoiselle Fariall au chapeau, 1890, Musee Maillol, Paris.
6. Aristide Maillol - L'enfant couronne, 1890, Musee Maillol, Paris.
7. Aristide Maillol - Dina Vierney a la robe rouge, 1940, Musee Maillol, Paris.
8. Pisanello - Portrait of Ginevra d'Estre or Margherita Gonzaga, c.1438-1440, Louvre Museum, Paris.

For further reading:
Wendy Slater, Aristide Maillol in the 1890s, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press: 1982.
David Alan Brown et al, Virtue And Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra d' Benci and Renaissance Portraits if Women, Princeton University Press: 2001.

Visit the Maillol Museum online.

Below is the poster that started my love affair with Maillol.


Art said...

I wasn't familiar with Maillol and I especially love the first image. Thanks for sharing!

Melinda9 said...

Gorgeous colors.
(Thanks for recommending Virtue and Beauty)

Jane said...

His sculpture is so well known that it overshadows his paintings and tapestries. Maillol's sculpture "The River" at the Museum of Modern Art-NYC is one of my favorite modern sculptures. Thank goodness it is always on view.

Jane said...

I heard David Alan Brown lecture on Renaissance portraits from the National Gallery. He has also written another very interesting book "Raphael and America" about the artist's (very) posthumous popularity in the new republic.

Timothy Cahill said...

Fascinating post, Jane. Thank you for the introduction to Maillol's paintings. They express the sense of evanescence in ways the sculptures can't. Would you please help with pronunciation of the gentleman's name: is it "Mai-o" "Mai-o-el" or something entirely different?

Jane said...

The best I can do is this, written phonetically: ah-res-teed mah- yol. Supply the French roll with your imagination!
Femme a l'ombrelle was bought from the artist by the Faraill family of Nancy (see the girl in the purple and black hat), then purchased for the French state in 1955 for the predecessor to the Pompidou Center, then transferred to the Louvre and finally, with the re-organization of public museums in Paris, to the Musee d'Orsay. Her visit to the Palais de Tokyo was between the last two stops.