Conspicuous Sensuality: Observing Maillol’s The Three Graces

by Blair Katherine Betik

three graces.pngPoised in the upstairs foyer of the Meadows Museum, three women stand side by side, with stoic faces and bare bodies. Cast in lead, Aristide Maillol’s The Three Graces exemplifies both the composed and dignified nature of the naked female body as well as the sensual and soft quality of hips, breasts, and curves that are indicative of womanhood. Algur H. Meadows purchased the sculpture in 1969 and donated it to his museum. Prior to this acquisition, this piece was fabricated by Eugene Rudier from Maillol’s wax mold between 1937 and 1939, and remained in Maillol’s collection until 1944 when it was passed to the possession of the artist’s son, Lucien Maillol. A private collector, Wildenstein, purchased The Three Graces in 1955 and owned it until Algur H. Meadows’ purchase.                In Greek mythology, the Graces were the daughters of Zeus: Aglaia, Euphrosnye, and Thalia, the goddesses of splendor, mirth, and good cheer, respectively. The sculpture is completely in the round, free standing figures rooted only by the lead platform to which they are sculpted.

The Three Graces captures both the sensuous and dignified natures of the female body, stripping it of all context. The only context for the Three Graces is the natural air around the sculpture, framing the figures in nothingness, and therefore highlighting the shape and form of the full and womanly bodies. The metallic and reflective quality of the lead adds even further definition of the sensual, as light glints off the sculpture and brings the lead to glimmering light. The dignity comes from the posture, the straight faces, lean necks, straight backs, and openness of the nudity despite the light that shimmers across the forms’ surfaces. The bent elbows that lead to presenting hands—this adds to the composed quality. This quality is dynamic, as the dignity is paired with the sensuous, as the poised posture is paired with the tilt of the hips, the softness of the hands. To the viewer, these naked women are both imposing and awe-worthy, but intimate, welcoming, and comfortable.

All of these qualities—light play, metallic material, fluid lines, selective definition, posture, and the role of that open air interacts with this sculpture—all cohesively emphasizes the grace of womanly bodies. These three goddesses are so fleshy, yet so composed. They are physical, yet respectable. The Three Graces is a marriage of imposition and intimacy, sensual skin replicated in gray, reflective lead.

Maillol’s The Three Graces is owned by the Meadows Museum and is in the Museum’s private collection.