Maillol was born in Banyuls-sur-Mer, in the south-east of France, near the Spanish border, and moved to Paris in 1881 to study painting, entering the École des Beaux-Arts in 1885. His early career was spent mainly as a tapestry designer and he opened a tapestry studio in Banyuls in 1893. He first made sculpture in 1895, and it was only in 1900 that he decided to devote himself to it after serious eye strain made him give up tapestry. In 1902 he had his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Vollard in Paris, which drew praise from Rodin; in 1905 came his first conspicuous success as the Salon d’Automne, Paris; and after about 1910 he was internationally famous and received a constant stream of commissions. With only a few exceptions, he restricted himself to the female nude. He was commissioned in 1905 to make a monument to the 19th-century revolutionary Louis-August Blanqui. Maillol himself said, ‘My point of departure is always a geometrical figure’, and that although ‘there is something to be learned from Rodin…I feel I must return to more stable and self-contained forms. Stripped of all psychological details, forms yield themselves up more readily to the sculptor’s intentions.’ He rejected Rodin’s emotionalism and animated surfaces; instead, Maillol’s weighty figures, often shown in repose, are solemn and broadly modelled, with simple poses and gestures. Although it was forward-looking in many ways, Maillol’s work also consciously continued the classical tradition of Greece and Rome (he visited Greece in 1908).
Maillol settled at Marly-le-Roi on the outskirts of Paris in 1903 but usually spent his winters in the south. In 1939 he returned to his birthplace. He took up painting again at this time, but apart from his sculpture the most important works of his maturity are his book illustrations, which helped to revive the art of the book in the 1920s and 1930s. He also made lithographic illustrations. A museum dedicated to Maillol opened in Paris in 1995, and there are examples of his work in many important collections of modern art.