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Henri Matisse made drawings of her, with spare, pure lines; Aristide Maillol sculpted her in bronze; and these days, when Dina Vierny, the muse of those early 20th-century artists, speaks of them, she brings them to life, too. Vierny was Maillol's last model, and she's opened a museum named for him in Paris. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited her there.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Dina Vierny 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?

Ms. DINA VIERNY (Director, Musee Maillol): No.

STAMBERG: How do you know?

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken).

STAMBERG: I'm showing her a photo of a Maillol drawing of a nude, like hundreds, he drew, but she knows exactly when it was made and why it was made.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken) Je suis un ordinateur...

STAMBERG: I'm a computer, Dina Vierny says. I have an enormous memory. Everything is stored in my brain.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken) Et je ne trompe pas.

Ms. VIRGINIA ISBELL (Translator) And I'm never wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: My French-American artist friend, Virginia Isabel(ph) is translating for me, charmed, like moi, by Madame Model.

(Soundbite of laugher)

STAMBERG: Dina Vierny fingers sparkle with gold and turquoise rings. A red cardigan sets off her dark hair and terrific smile. You can see her at npr.org. She sits in a small armchair, surrounded by sculpted images of herself nude.

Tell me about working with Maillol. You were a very young girl when you began.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken) Ah, oui. Fifteen years.

STAMBERG: A friend of young Dina's father's spotted her at a party in 1934. The man also knew Maillol, whose career was on pause back then. He told the sculptor, I have met a girl who is a living Maillol; you must meet her. Dina was not at all interested.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken) Non. J'avais d'autres idees.

STAMBERG: She was in high school and had other ideas, but her father's friend insisted. So, she went to meet Maillol, and a new, defining phase of Dina Vierny's life began. The 15-year-old girl agreed to pose for him, the 73-year-old artist.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken)

STAMBERG: Maillol worshipped the naked female body in his art. But Vierny says he was a very, very pure man, sensitive. He treated his models with respect. He was also shy, he never asked her to undress.

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) I posed fully clothed, and I've recently bought a drawing that he did of mine that I found in a public auction. And it is a little girl sitting on a seat, with two long braids, fully dressed.

Since he never asked, I figured he would never have the courage to ask me to get naked.

STAMBERG: In the 1930s Dina and her high school friends were part of a back-to-nature group.

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) We got naked easily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) Because the nude is more pure than anything.

STAMBERG: So, you were never embarrassed or uncomfortable?

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) Ridiculous. I thought it was silly that he didn't ask me.

STAMBERG: So, you offered.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken) Oui.

STAMBERG: Yes, Dina did. She points over her shoulder at an early sculpture Maillol did of her.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken).

STAMBERG: Yes. And you're just standing looking down. And you are very beautiful, and you're very naked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) Do you know why I'm looking down there? I'm looking down because I was in school and 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.

STAMBERG: Were you paid?

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) Of course. Otherwise I wouldn't have done it.

STAMBERG: Ten francs an hour, more than a blue-collar worker was getting in those days. She posed for three hours; more would have been too tiring. Over the 10 years they worked together, Dina 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.

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) It was horrible.

STAMBERG: Dina 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. Dina carried with her a letter Maillol had written to Matisse.

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) And in the letter it said, I am sending you the object of my work, and you will reduce her to a simple line.

STAMBERG: Henri Matisse was recovering from an operation when Dina arrived. He welcomed the company.

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) He would sit in his bed, but he would present the world to me. He knew a lot of things, and he loved to talk.

STAMBERG: Dina like him from the beginning.

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) Matisse was stricter. You had to pose, not move, but you could talk.

STAMBERG: So, what did he like to talk about?

Ms. VIERNY: (Through translator) We could talk about anything. This was the first time they had a model who had done studies, and so we could talk about art; we could talk about books.

STAMBERG: 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 of herself.

So, you live surrounded by the art that you helped to make.

Ms. VIERNY: (French spoken) Oui, survre.

STAMBERG: As the Paris afternoon darkens, Dina Vierny raises her arms, indicating we should help lift her from her chair. Slowly, she walks us to the door, and bidding goodbye, this vibrant and beautiful old woman has parting words: You must search for happiness in your life, she counsels. Don't get discouraged. Look ahead with hope.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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