After initially devoting himself to painting and the decorative arts, Aristide Maillol established himself as a major and highly innovative sculptor in the early years of the 20 century, when he was in his forties. He became very close to Maurice Denis, a painter and theorist in the Nabis group, who devoted a long article to him in 1905 on the occasion of the presentation of his Femme assise (Seated Woman), later known as Méditerranée, at that year’s Salon. In it, he defined Maillol’s aesthetic creed (whose values he largely subscribed to) as follows: “Art’s ideal is to condense and summarize the infinitely varied relations we perceive in Nature in a small number of clear and concise forms. It is to reduce our most individual sensations to the essential; it is to combine the simple with the complicated”.
It was during exactly the same period, between 1904 and 1907, that Maillol sculpted three versions of his portrait of Maurice Denis’ wife Marthe, whose importance in the painter’s work and life is well documented. The bust we have just acquired is the first and largest in the series, the one on which the two others were based. True to the “ideal” defined above by Denis, Maillol provides the young woman with all the appearance of serenity, untroubled by emotion, a portrait that certainly looked like her yet has something of the classical about it. The bust is composed of large, clearly defined volumes: the shoulders, highlighted by the edging of her dress, the neck, the forehead and, above all, her hair, worn in a bun at the back. Marthe’s facial features are rendered in almost summary fashion, with smoothened details and taut surface, without a trace of unevenness.
Coming directly from the Denis family, this work bears ample witness to the strong ties of friendship, admiration and mutual support that bound the two men in what Maillol called an “artistic brotherhood”.