At the beginning of the twentieth century, as he turned from a career as a painter and a graphic and tapestry designer to concentrate on sculpture, Aristide Maillol was shaping what would become the leitmotif of his career. The subject that inspired him was the female nude, carefully observed but transmuted by underlying geometric forms into a kind of architecture, evoking the timeless rather than the individual. Without losing sight of nature, Maillol strove for simplicity, balance, and serenity in composing his beloved type of full-bodied, youthful beauty.
The figure that became known as Méditerranée was his first major success as a sculptor. In a design process extending from about 1900 to 1905, the sculptor developed the image of a woman seated on the ground, her head bent forward, one leg at rest on the earth with the foot crossing under the archway formed by the opposite raised knee. Maillol worked out his design in a series of drawings, small clay sketches, and large plasters. The final plaster version, 110 centimeters high and called simply Woman, appeared in the center of a room at the Salon d'automne in Paris in 1905. Maillol's friend André Gide contrasted the seated woman with the works of Rodin in the same exhibition. The Rodin works seemed to him "troubled, significant, full of pathetic clamor"; Maillol's woman, on the other hand, "is beautiful, she means nothing; it is a silent work. I believe one must go far back in time to find such complete neglect of any preoccupation beyond the simple manifestation of beauty." 
The figure received the title Méditerranée only in the early 1920s. Working titles had included Crouching Woman, Thought, Latin Thought, and Statue for a Peaceful Park.  Maillol had continued to meditate on the subject after the 1905 exhibition; as the critic Judith Cladel wrote, "Does she not incarnate the land of light, the region of radiant intelligence, the Greco-Roman zone where she had her birth and the ancient race that populates its shores? She will finally be called Méditerranée.'  Maillol later commented further:
I had thought of calling her Young Girl in the Sun; then, on a day of beautiful light, she appeared to me so alive, so radiant in her natural atmosphere that I baptised her Mediterranean. Not The Mediterranean, a sea that we know well. That's not what I was after. My idea in sculpting her was to create a figure that was young, luminous and noble. All that, is it not the essence of the Mediterranean spirit? That's why I chose her name and why I want her to keep it. 
Many who saw the 1905 plaster wanted versions in more permanent materials. Among these was the young German count Harry Kessler, a friend who became Maillol's greatest patron. He commissioned a full-sized stone version (now at Winterthur, Oskar Reinhart Collection); the French state commissioned a marble in 1923 (completed 1927; now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris); and bronzes were also cast from the exhibited plaster (examples are in the jardin du Carousel, Paris, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York). The Washington marble figure differs from the large versions particularly in the placement of the left hand, which is closer to the cheek than to the top of the head, and in the inward turns of the right hand and bent knee, which create a somewhat more restless composition. Similar variations appear in some small bronze versions cast after 1905. 
According to Dina Vierny, Maillol's last model and curator of the Musée Maillol in Paris, Maillol carved this marble himself, without the help of assistants. Pierre Matisse, who acquired it from the artist about 1930, declared that the crack at the rear of the base occurred in the course of carving and was repaired by Maillol himself. 
This small, rare carving is the National Gallery's only marble sculpture by Maillol, and its only example of the design with which Maillol first won international acclaim as a sculptor.
(Text by Alison Luchs, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. André Gide, "Promenade au Salon d'Automne," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 34 (1905), 476, 478 - 479.
2. For the range of titles see Ursel Berger in Aristide Maillol, ed. Ursel Berger and Jörg Zutter [exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne] (Lausanne, 1996 - 1997), 191, no. 47 (French ed. Paris, 1996); Judith Cladel, Aristide Maillol: Sa vie-Son oeuvre-Ses idées (Paris, 1937), 73 - 75, and Antoinette Le Normand-Romain in Geneviève Bresc-Bautier and Anne Pingeot, eds., Sculptures des jardins du Louvre, du Carrousel et des Tuileries, 2 vols. (Paris, 1986), 289, no. 240 and 301, no. 254.
3. Cladel 1937, 74.
4. René Puig, "La vie misérable et glorieuse d'Aristide Maillol," Tramontane 1965, 26, cited in Maillol, ed. Jean-Paul Monery [exh. cat., Musée de L'Annonciade] (Saint-Tropez, 1994), 76, 80.
5. Compare a bronze 21.3 centimeters high sold at Christie, Manson & Woods, New York, 6 May 1998, lot 232; see the sale's catalogue (Christie's) Impressionist and Nineteenth Century Art, page 140.
6. Dealer notes in National Gallery of Art curatorial files. Pierre Matisse's father, the great painter Henri Matisse, had helped Maillol make plaster casts of his studies for the 1905 sculpture; Cladel 1937, 74.
7. Andrew C. Ritchie, ed., Aristide Maillol [exh. cat., Albright Art Gallery] (Buffalo, 1945), 108.