The Artist's Muse, the Old Woman and the Collection

I had never heard of Dina Vierny and was only barely aware of the sculptor Aristide Malliol when Gina and I visited a friend with a terrific art collection about 18 months ago. I had arranged the visit so we could see our friend's paintings. Among the Monets, Renoirs, Vuillards and Dufys, there is a painting by Utrillo that drew me in the first time I ever visited the house, because when you look at it – the gray sky and the slushy snow – you know exactly what that kind of day feels like in a city, even if you’ve never been to Paris.

Our friend told us that her real passion is sculpture and, indeed, she said she had the second largest private collection of Malliols in the world, I think. Most were large bronzes of women, or rather of one woman. One in particular, a nude, was placed in the corner of a sun room, on a lazy-susan-like pedestal that our friend had had made so people could view the whole sculpture without it having to occupy the middle of the room.

Nearby was a photograph of a young woman. She said it was Malliol’s model, taken in the 1940s, although it looked contemporary. The model was Dina Vierny. She and our friend met when Madame Vierny learned that our friend was collecting works by Malliol. When Madame Vierny first visited, our friend was expecting to see someone who looked like the model. But by then the photo was perhaps 50 years old and of course a photo of a person's face gives you no idea how big that person is. Madame Vierny was driven to our friend's house and the figure the emerged from the limo indeed turned out not only to be an old woman but a tiny old woman -- four-feet, eight-inches, our friend said, and as wide as she was tall. She was a fierce personality but eventually they warmed to each other and became close friends.

Later during our tour of her art collection, in one of the upstairs rooms where our friend keeps paintings she doesn't love, I asked about a landscape on the wall of a bedroom. She said it was a Malliol. Years ago her husband had seen in a catalogue that a Malliol painting was going to be auctioned, in Paris, I think. So he sent an associate to the auction with instructions to buy it. The expected price was $75,000. The associate asked how high he should bid. Whatever it takes, he was told. But someone else was interested and the bidding rose and rose, above $200,000 to almost $250,000. Our friend's associate dropped out. The next painting to be auctioned, though, was also a Malliol, so he bid successfully on it. Unfortunately our friend didn’t like it. But she was stuck with it and hung it in an upstairs bedroom. She found out later that the other bidder for the first painting was Dina Vierny, who wanted to buy it for the Malliol museum she oversees.

I saw Dina Vierny's obituary in this morning's Times: "Dina Vierny, Artist's Muse, Dies at 89." I found it to be absolutely fascinating. -- ta

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