Preparing for the monumental sculpture The Mountain, Maillol made four different studies using Dina Vierny as his model. Work on the first study was under way by the beginning of 1935, and the last was complete by 1936. The study in the Australian National Gallery is the most finished of the series and therefore likely to be the final study. Like other studies it was cast in bronze and in terracotta in editions of six. The three earlier studies were sand-cast by the Rudier Foundry, Paris, whereas the Gallery's version was cast by the Valsuani Foundry, Paris, using the lost-wax process.
After completing the four small studies Maillol began work on the monumental figure of The mountain in the summer of 1936, building up and shaping the clay model in a small shed in the garden of his studio in the rue Thieband in Marly-le-Roi. Although it was his habit to winter in Banyuls, Maillol continued working at Marly throughout the winter of 1936-37 as he was determined to finish the sculpture. The Musée National d'art Moderne, Paris, had commissioned The mountain in stone, and Maillol hoped to include it with a selection of his work in the exhibition 'Les Maîtres de l'Art Indépendant, 1895-1937', to be held at the Petit Palais, Paris, during the Exposition Universelle in June 1937. By autumn 1936 a plaster cast had been made from the clay model and the plaster transported to Van Dongen's studio in Montval, a few kilometres away. Jean Van Dongen, the brother of the painter Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968), was Maillol's assistant and was often called upon to render Maillol's large plasters in stone.
While the plaster was being finished at Van Dongen's studio, the photographer Brassaï came to photograph it at the invitation of Maillol, who felt it would make a good poster for the Petit Palais exhibition. While Brassaï and Maillol were inspecting the sculpture on 21 December 1936 they noticed:
that the weight of the material has caused 'La Montagne's' left shoulder to begin to slip … Probably the iron armature has given way Maillol is beside himself, and so is everyone else. Can the disaster be prevented; Van Dongen fetches some planks to shore up the weakened shoulder, while the sculptor tries to strengthen it with freshly mixed plaster In the end, the sculpture is saved, and two hours later I manage to photograph it, with Maillol looking like a midget beside the colossus.1
By 22 January 1937 Maillol's work on the figure was complete.
Maillol was as conscious of the overall aspect of The mountain as he was of the details, and was known 'to start with a geometrical figure, square, lozenge, triangle, because these are figures that hold best in space', further stating that his Isle de France was 'inscribed in an acute angled triangle' and The Mediterranean was 'enclosed in a perfect square'. Considering the resemblance between The Mediterranean and The mountain, it is not surprising that during Brassai's visit to photograph the latter sculpture, Maillol remarked that 'what I was trying to make was a huge white square, a large luminous square'.2
Within the 'square' of The mountain are a number of triangular elements that could suggest a mountain terrain and give a rationale for the title of the sculpture. Dina Vierny's recollection was that the title did not imply a reference to a specific locale or geographic feature, but was 'purely allegorical'.3 It was Maillol's practice to saw plaster casts of his works into pieces and incorporate the component parts into other works. In this manner Maillol used pieces of The mountain to help create his next monumental work, The river 1938-43.
In addition to the version carved in stone (now in the Musée de Lyon), an edition of The mountain was cast in lead by the Georges Rudier Foundry, Paris. According to Dina Vierny, who supervised the casting, the use of lead was favoured by Maillol who had been impressed by the works in lead commissioned by Louis XIV to decorate Versailles. The edition of six casts is located as follows: private collection, Japan (1/6); Norton Simon Collection, Pasadena (2/6); whereabouts unknown (3/6); Australian National Gallery, Canberra (4/6); Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio (5/6); St Louis Museum of Art (6/6). The four artist's proofs are located at: Jardin des Tuileries, Paris; Tel-Aviv Museum; Musée Maillol, Paris; collection of Dina Vierny, Paris.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.202.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra