Dina Vierny was 15 when she began modeling for Aristide Maillol. A friend of her father's spotted her at a party and told the sculptor, "I have met a girl who is a living Maillol. You must meet her."
Dina Vierny was 15 when she began modeling for Aristide Maillol. A friend of her father's spotted her at a party and told the sculptor, "I have met a girl who is a living Maillol. You must meet her." Perrin/Corbis/Sygma
Maillol's Les Trois Graces, 1938, at Tuileries Gardens in Paris.
Maillol's Les Trois Graces, 1938, at Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Kathryn Berenson
During World War II, Maillol sent Vierny to pose for his good friend, Henri Matisse. It was with Matisse's encouragement that Vierny began collecting art. She opened the Musee Maillol in Paris in 1995.
During World War II, Maillol sent Vierny to pose for his good friend, Henri Matisse. It was with Matisse's encouragement that Vierny began collecting art. She opened the Musee Maillol in Paris in 1995. Perrin/Corbis/Sygma
Vierny's home is filled with masterfully sculpted images of herself by Maillol.
Vierny's home is filled with masterfully sculpted images of herself by Maillol. Susan Stamberg/NPR
Now 89 years old, Vierny lives above the Musee Maillol, in an apartment filled with sculptures she inspired.
Henri Matisse made drawings of her, with spare, pure lines. Aristide Maillol sculpted her in bronze.
And these days, in France, the muse of those 20th-century artists — Dina Vierny — speaks of them with affection and clarity. Vierny was Maillol's last model, and has opened a museum named for him in Paris.
Where, it turns out, she lives over the store — up an old spiral staircase, past doors and locks with secret codes to her apartment at the Musee Maillol. She's 89 years old, small, still beautiful, and sharp as a tack.
"Is this you," I ask, showing her a Maillol drawing of a nude — much like hundreds of others he drew.
Somehow Vierny knows it's not her. More: She knows exactly when it was made. And why it was made.
"Je suis un ordinateur," Vierny shrugs — "I'm a computer. I have an enormous memory. Everything is stored in my brain. Et je me trompe pas — I am never wrong."
And she laughs.
Vierny's fingers sparkle with gold and turquoise rings. A red cardigan sets off her dark hair and her terrific smile. She sits in a small armchair, surrounded by sculpted images of herself — nude.
A friend of Dina's father spotted her at a party in 1934. The man also knew Maillol, whose career was on pause then.
He told the sculptor, "I have met a girl who is a living Maillol. You must meet her."
Dina wasn't at all interested.
"Non — j'avais d'autres idees," she says. "I had other ideas."
She was in high school, after all. But her father's friend insisted. So she went to meet Maillol.
And a new, defining phase of Vierny's life began. The 15-year-old girl agreed to pose for the 73-year-old artist.
'Un Homme Tres, Tres Pure,' And An Adventurous Model
Maillol worshipped the female naked body in his art. But Vierny says he was "a very, very pure man" — sensitive, an artist who treated his models with respect.
He was also shy. He never asked her to undress.
"So I posed fully clothed," Vierny recalls. "I recently bought a drawing that he did. ... It is a little girl sitting on a seat, with two long braids."
The girl in the sketch was fully dressed.
"Since he never asked, I figured he would never have the courage," she says.
But in the 1930s, Vierny and her high-school friends were part of a back-to-nature group.
"We got naked easily," she says. "Parce que le nude est plus pure que tout — the nude is more pure than anything."
She was never embarrassed or uncomfortable. And "I thought it was silly that he didn't ask me."
So she offered.
She points over her shoulder, at an early sculpture Maillol did of her.
"Do you know why I'm looking down there?" she asks. "I'm looking down because I was in school — I had homework to do. So he built a little stand for me, on which I could put my books, and I would study while he worked."
Maillol paid her to pose — "Of course, otherwise I wouldn't have done it" — of 10 francs an hour, more than a blue-collar worker was getting in those days. She posed for three hours at a stretch; more would have been too tiring.
A Career Revived For Maillol, A New Mentor For His Muse
Over the 10 years they worked together, Vierny reinvigorated the elderly artist. She felt she became indispensable to Maillol and the smooth, serene sculptures he created. They were never lovers, she says. Only close, close friends and working companions.
In Maillol's last years — he died in 1944 — World War II brought the German occupation of France. Vierny helped several artists and intellectuals escape the Nazis. She was arrested; Maillol hired a lawyer. When she was released, in the summer of 1940, to keep her out of more trouble, he sent her off, to shelter with and pose for his good friend, Henri Matisse.
Vierny carried with her a letter Maillol had written to Matisse.
"I am sending you the object of my work," it said, "and you will reduce her to a simple line."
Matisse was recovering from an operation when Dina arrived. He welcomed the company.
"Matisse was very talkative," Vierny remembers. "He would sit in his bed, and he would present the world to me. He knew a lot of things, and he loved to talk."
Vierny liked him from the beginning.
"Matisse was strict. You had to pose and not move, but you could talk. ... This was the first time [he] had a model who had done studies, and so we could talk about everything — we could talk about art, we could talk about books."
Vierny and Matisse became good friends. And after Maillol's death, Matisse encouraged her to begin collecting art, and later, to open a gallery. His encouragement eventually led to the opening of the Musee Maillol — where she lives above the various exhibitions, in an apartment filled with sculptures she inspired.
As the Paris afternoon darkens, Vierny raises her arms, indicating my translator and I should help lift her from her chair. Slowly, she walks us to the door.
And bidding us goodbye, this vibrant and beautiful old woman has a few parting words.
"You must search for happiness in your life," she counsels. "Don't get discouraged. Look ahead with hope."