Originally intended as a war memorial for the poet-turned-pacifist Henri Barbusse, Maillol began work on a sculpture depicting a woman falling to the ground after being stabbed in the back. Due to the financial difficulties in Barbusse’s estate, this version was never completed. Despite the sudden lack of funds, Maillol continued production of the sculpture with a revised theme of the female figure as the personification of a river.
In the original context as a commission for a war memorial, the figure appears to take no action against her attack, complementing Barbusse’s own pacifist philosophy. In her revised context as the personification of a river, the dynamic twisting of the torso depicts her figure as if swept away by the currents, her arms held up in an attempt to lessen the impact of the waves. Though the history of the sculpture’s creation is interesting in a historical context, it is the flawless execution of the woman’s figure which allows the viewer to look past the variances in context to focus solely on the skillful rendering of her form.
The contorted positioning of her body closely resembles that of the Sabine woman from Giambologna’s famous sculpted group The Rape of the Sabine Women in Florence (see fig. 1). Both La Rivière and the Sabine woman display expressions of mild surprise, with slightly parted lips the only feature belying any emotions. They both share a simultaneous lack of reaction and abundance of grace in situations that instinctively trigger the opposite. If one were to turn the Sabine woman horizontally, the twisting of her torso and the positioning of her limbs would be nearly identical to those of La Rivière.
This impressive bronze was created by Maillol at the end of his career, nearly forty years after his first foray into sculpting. Using his longtime muse Dina Vierny as the model for this work, this faultless execution of simple lines and strong, voluptuous proportions is balanced beautifully, making it one of the most successful and well-received works of Maillol’s long career.
Dina Vierny’s son, Bertrand Lorquin said of the sculpture, “Monumentality does not require to be looked up to, but simply to be looked at. This was a radically new concept of the function of monumental sculpture, for it introduced a new relationship between the statue and the viewer” (L. Clement, Learning to Look: A Visual Response to Mavis Gallant’s Fiction, Toronto, 2000, p. 267). This praise from Lorquin and a myriad of art critics has held true in the decades since it’s reveal; other casts of this sculpture are held at world-renowned institutions including The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris.
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