Aristide Maillol

The Three Nymphs

1930–8, cast 1937–8

Not on display

Aristide Maillol 1861–1944
Original title
Les Trois nymphes
Object: 1575 × 1467 × 806 mm, 858.8 kg
Presented by the Art Fund 1939

Display caption

The arrangement of these three nude females recalls the traditional composition of 'The Three Graces'. However, Maillol insisted that they were three nymphs of the 'flowery meadows', and commented that they were too powerful to represent the Graces. His pupil Lucile Passavant, who later became a distinguished sculptor and wood-engraver, posed for the central figure when aged nineteen. Maillol worked on the three figures in plaster between 1931 and 1937. The group was cast in lead in 1938, and the edition size is thought to be six. Maillol preferred the material of lead for this group because he felt that bronze would be too dark in character for the flowery theme.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Aristide Maillol 1861-1944

N05022 Les Trois Nymphes (The Three Nymphs) 1930-8

Inscribed 'M' on upper surface of base and 'Alexis Rudier. | Fondeur Paris.' on back of base
Lead, 62 1/4 x 57 3/4 x 31 3/8 (158 x 146.5 x 79.5); the width and depth are those of the integral base
Presented by the National Art-Collections Fund 1939
Prov: NACF (purchased from the artist 1937-9)
Exh: Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture, Battersea Park, London, May-September 1948 (25, repr.)
Lit: André Fontainas, 'Aristide Maillol's Recent Work' in Formes, No.19, November 1931, p.150, unfinished plaster of the central figure repr. between pp.148 and 149; Judith Cladel, Aristide Maillol: sa Vie - son Oeuvre - ses Idées (Paris 1937), pp.120-1, 125-7, unfinished plaster repr. pl.33; 34th Annual Report of the NACF 1937 (London 1938), p.53, plaster of the central figure repr. p.52; John Rewald, 'Les Ateliers de Maillol' in Le Point, 1938, pp.231-4, plaster of central figure repr. p.237; 35th Annual Report of the NACF, 1938 (London 1939), p.22, repr. p.23; John Rewald, Maillol (Paris 1939), p.167, plaster repr. pp.130-1; Marguette Bouvier, Aristide Maillol (Lausanne 1945), pp.44, 52, plaster repr. p.45; John Rothenstein, 'In Memoriam, Aristide Maillol' in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, VI series, XXX, 1946, p.184; Pierre Camo, Maillol, Mon Ami (Lausanne 1950), pp.55-7, 80; R.S.D. [Davis], 'Art Institute acquires Important Bronze Sculpture by Aristide Maillol' in Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 1951, pp.42-7, bronze cast repr. pp.41 and 43; Henri Frère, Conversations de Maillol (Geneva 1956), pp.13, 15-16, 25, 37, 53, 298-9, unfinished plaster of the central figure repr. facing p.32; Rolf Linnenkamp, Aristide Maillol: erster kritischer Karalog zur Grossplastik (Hamburg 1957), No.19, pl.13 as 'Les Nymphes de la Prairie'; Waldemar George and Dina Vierny, Aristide Maillol (London 1965), p.223, bronze cast repr. p.202
Repr: E.H. Ramsden, Twentieth Century Sculpture (London 1949), pl.27; The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.129

The three figures are said by Judith Cladel to have had their hands linked at one stage with a garland of flowers and to have been crowned respectively with daisies, buttercups and sweet marjoram. (Only the crowns of daisies and buttercups are left in the finished work). She alludes to the group by the name 'The Three Meadow Nymphs' or 'The Flowers of the Meadow'. The arrangement of the figures recalls the traditional composition of 'The Three Graces' and the group was first exhibited at the Petit Palais in 1937 under this title, though Maillol is reported to have said: 'They are too powerful to represent the Graces'. (Writing to the National Art-Collections Fund in August 1937, he likewise declared: 'I am very happy that your Society wishes to acquire the group of the three "nymphs" which is how I refer to what you call the "three graces"').

Maillol made the central figure in 1930 from Lucile Passavant, a pupil and protegé of his, who has since become a distinguished sculptor and wood-engraver in her own right. She writes (letter of 8 January 1975) that she was introduced to Maillol at Marly-le-Roi when she was aged 18. 'Madame Maillol touched no doubt by my youth and my apparent fragility begged her husband to look after me arguing that he could make drawings from me and he himself looked at me with his roguish blue eyes, disconcerted nevertheless by a grace which was no doubt well proportioned but whose 46kg seemed very frail beside the Pomona.

'I accordingly became for the latter part of the summer the girl of the house, the 'cricket on the hearth' ...

'In this way the Master finished the arms of the Debussy monument, made drawings (I have several of the portraits) and my still unpublished bust (of which I own a bronze and the original plaster) which he gave me on his last trip to Paris in 1943.

'Maillol wanted to sculpt the three graces and at his wish I went to Banyuls the following winter. He made there the central figure but his genius was monumental and although beautiful and radiant the clay despite everything resembled me.

'His Grace became a Nymph, there ceased my collaboration as model ...

'I believe he later completed the group with elements existing in his studio.'

By February 1931 the figure had already been cast in plaster. Photographs of the unfinished plaster, showing it without arms, were published in Formes, November 1931, as 'Statue for a Group of the Three Graces'; it was described as the sculptor's latest creation. In September 1936 the artist informed H. Frère: 'I have begun some big jobs ... the three nymphs of the flowery meadows are nearly together already.' The group was sufficiently advanced in June 1937 to be shown in plaster in the exhibition Les Maîtres de l'Art Indépendant, 1895-1937 at the Petit Palais in Paris, though the two outer figures were still unfinished. The last touches were not completed until August the following year.

Further particulars regarding the completion of the group and the complicated history of the present cast in particular are contained in the correspondence files of the National Art-Collections Fund. The Fund decided in May 1937 to commission the central figure for presentation to the Tate provided that a plaster cast was available for display at the opening of the Duveen Sculpture Gallery on 29 June 1937. The plaster, which was catalogued as No.[N0]4878 (and is reproduced in Apollo, XXVI, 1937, p.112), remained at the Tate until September of that year when it was returned to Paris to be cast in lead by Rudier. Maillol probably added a few finishing touches to it before it went to the founder. The lead cast arrived in February 1938. Two months after the commission had been given for the central figure, that is in July 1937, the National Art-Collections Fund decided to acquire the complete group. But the sculptor, who was very tired by his exertions of the previous months, said that he was going south to the Midi for a rest and would not be able to finish the two outer figures until the following May. In fact he returned to Marly-le-Roi in June 1938 and finished his work on 'The Three Nymphs' in August. The lead cast of the central figure was returned to Paris in December 1938, so that Rudier could incorporate it in the group, which arrived in February 1939.

According to John Hugh Smith who visited Maillol in May 1937 on behalf of the National Art-Collections Fund: 'Mon. Maillol thinks that the group as a whole should be reproduced in lead and not in bronze, which would be too dark, though he has no objection to the single central figure being reproduced in bronze. If it were a question of a marble version of either the group or the central figure, it would be a matter of some two years' (letter of 31 March 1937 in the NACF files). Five, possibly six, lead casts of the group are known:

1. Tate Gallery
2. Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (on extended loan from the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris)
3. Kunstmuseum, Bern
4. Coll. Mrs Lucille Ellis Simon, Los Angeles (ex coll. Norton Simon)
5. Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Texas (the cast formerly in the artist's garden at Marly-le-Roi)

There may also be one more in a US private collection. In addition, there are two casts in bronze which now belong to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (the artist's proof) and the Musée de Poitiers. According to Dina Vierny (letter of 25 July 1975): 'Maillol liked the lead, but the lead and the bronze form part of the same edition in sand cast'. There are no versions in marble.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.468-70, reproduced p.468

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