I met Mme. Vierny, the heiress and last mode of French sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), while in graduate school and writing a paper—later my first publication—on Maillol’s monument to Auguste Blanqui, a kind of nineteenth-century Bernie Sanders who spent more than half his life in prison. I admired Blanqui’s passionate commitment to the establishment of egalitarian human rights for all. I also adore Jules Dalou’s magnificent grave monument to Blanqui (1885) in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery.
Our first meeting occurred at the Hotel Westbury, at Madison Avenue and 69th Street, where she stayed when visiting New York. We had tea in her suite. The second meeting was in Paris. I went to her home, inherited from Maillol and designed by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opèra (now Opèra Garnier), as his personal residence. Majestic but not enormous, one of its property boundaries is defined on one side by the Four Seasons Fountain (thus I must have seen it before even if I don’t remember), built in the mid-eighteenth century, and on the other, a two-story wooden portal. Mme. Vierny’s maid escorted me to a small salon.
Mme. Vierny was Maillol’s last model. She began her career as a teen in the Mediterranean town of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where Maillol lived near the Spanish border; she became his heir when the artist died in 1944. Mme. Vierny was small and stocky with jet black hair and the aggressive self-assurance of a parvenue. The room where we sat had a relaxed elegance that somehow did not seem the proper setting for her Capuchin monkey, Rocky (she adored Sylvester Stallone), that hopped all over the room like an imp on speed.
The maid arrived with a silver tray holding a coffee service and a plate of madeleines. She then returned a few minutes later with another silver tray, this time bearing three small Maillol sculptures. Nude females, as one would expect. I assumed Mme. Vierny had selected them because they related to my project: the Blanqui Monument, also called Action in Chains, a robust striding woman with wrists shackled behind her back. It’s installed on a central square of Blanqui’s tiny, ancestral village of Puget-Thèniers in the Alps Maritimes north of Nice.
That might have been part of her point, but what impressed me was her command:
“Pick it up!”
So, I did.
I ran my hand over the surface.
“Do you know why I’m telling you to do that?” she asked.
“No,” I replied sheepishly.
“Because Maillol turned from painting and textile design to sculpture when his eyesight began to fail in the 1890s and he was no longer able to perceive nuances of color and texture. He made sculpture by touch. He studied the contours of the model’s body with his hands and then replicated them in clay.”
I may have shuddered, imagining an elderly man running his hands over a young woman’s body. But then I thought, What’s the matter with me! That makes sense. I wondered if he were the first sculptor to adopt that strategy. My thoughts strayed to Michelangelo and Rodin. I’d never read about this situation in any Maillol scholarship, and it reinforced to me the importance of meeting those with firsthand knowledge of artists. This small bit of information provided crucial insight into understanding the artist. In fact, we all possess essential facets to our character that remain unknown unless the right person reveals them to the world through an anecdote, don’t we?