Charles Malfray

Red chalk – Dancer – Charles Malfray

Charles Malfray


Date : vers 1937

Dimensions : H : 64 cm ; L : 48 cm

place of production: Paris ( France )

Material : red chalk drawing on paper

Condition : Good condition - some restorations

References : Musée national d’art moderne de Paris, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, La Piscine, Roubaix, Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans, Fondation des arts et des artistes, Alger

Conditions & disponibilité: available - unframed


of work


This large red chalk drawing, produced around 1937, depicts a nude woman, her arms raised and legs bent in a dance movement. The features of the drawing are those of a preparatory sketch made as part of a project on dance.
As the movement of the chest and hair, and the general position of the model’s body might suggest, the sculptor Charles Malfray almost certainly drew a model lying down, with her feet resting on a bedpost. The artist then turned the drawing upside down, giving it a new orientation and reversing the impression of gravity. From a reclining, static model, he created a dancer in motion, caught in a controlled fall or performing an archaic dance, like a bacchante in trance.
A sculpture that is thought to be related is in the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. This sculpture, entitled Dance and made in 1938, is a high-relief in patinated plaster in which the subject, a nude woman, is depicted in a pose very similar to that in our drawing.

Placing this red chalk drawing and this sculpture side by side reveals the process Charles Malfray used to create the very special impression of a dancer suspended in mid-air. From a composition imposed by the static pose of the model and the fixation of forces, the artist, by reversing the position, sets his model in motion.
In this respect, it is interesting to note that the sculptor Charles Malfray, in this creative process, remains perfectly in tune with the principles that govern his work and his conception of sculpture, which is clearly architectural in character.
His notes read: “Architecture in sculpture… in other words, what alone counts in sculpture… Everything else is nothing…”.
Architecture is the mastery of the forces governing matter in a quest for elevation. By representing a passive, extended model, the sculptor Charles Malfray captures in his drawing the field of forces that govern the structure of his subject. Then, almost like a mathematical operation, he turns his work upside down, reverses the forces and sets his model in motion.

Patinated plaster high-relief created in 1938 by Charles Malfray. Paris, Centre Pompidou - National Museum of Modern Art - Centre for Industrial Creation

Architecture, strictly speaking, means the essence of the thing. In a building, it is the force of the construction, the constructive and logical part of the forces that build the edifice. All the rest is nothing...

Charles Malfray

Orléans (France) 1887 - Dijon (France) 1940

Aristide Maillol, Charles Despiau, Robert Wlerick, Antoine Bourdelle and many others all regarded Charles Malfray as a master.
But who was Charles Malfray, the sculptor behind a scandal that, like Rodin’s Balzac, illustrated a major turning point in twentieth-century modern sculpture?
Charles Malfray was born into a family of stonemasons and architects. He was soon apprenticed to the sculptor Alfred Lanson, and continued his training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Orléans until 1904. Joining his brother Henri, then studying architecture in Paris, Charles Malfray discovered bohemian life and independence. There he met great artists such as Auguste Rodin, and forged lasting friendships with the artists of his time. Antoine Bourdelle, Charles Despiau, Maurice Ravel and Aristide Maillol were all loyal friends.
In 1907, Charles Malfray was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In addition to his academic training, he practised drawing intensively, drawing on the spot as he strolled along the banks of the Seine. He already had a fierce desire to break away from academicism.
Charles Malfray took part in a number of competitive examinations up until 1914, when he was called up to the artillery. His war years were trying ones; gassed several times during the terrible battles on the Chemin des Dames, his health was irreparably damaged.
After several attempts before the war, Charles Malfray was awarded the second Prix de Rome in 1920 for his work Maternity, which was subsequently acquired by the State.
Charles Malfray then went through a difficult period, accumulating personal problems and financial setbacks, until the death of his mother in 1935.
The mental illness of his brother, who died in 1932, and the creation of monuments to the dead for the towns of Pithiviers and Orléans, which became the focus of an aesthetic battle, exhausted him both morally and financially. The press, associations and local councils, all impervious to the sculptor’s innovative style, fiercely criticised Charles Malfray’s work.

Charles Malfray’s sculpture is powerful and massive. Quickly moving away from academicism, he drew on Romanesque art, which he admired and considered authentic, as well as Khmer art, from which he drew a muscular anatomy. Breaking with the academicism of his time, Charles Malfray, through his return to authentic, sincere ancestral statuary, considered himself to be truly modern.
Modern art, as you say, is nothing more than the exact search for the true tradition in statuary, a tradition that we have lost since the 15th century.
Notes, Charles Malfray
Admired and supported by his peers, Charles Malfray was ardently defended by the great sculptors of his time, such as Charles Despiau, Antoine Bourdelle and Robert Wlerick, as well as by important art critics such as André Warnod, Louis Vauxcelles and Charles Kunstler.
Supported by his friends, Charles Malfray received help from Maillol, who allowed him to teach sculpture and drawing at the Académie Ranson, which ensured him a modest income.
From 1935 onwards, a number of exhibitions and government commissions gave Charles Malfray a new lease of life, which lasted until 1939, when he took part in the exhibition A Century of French Sculpture in Amsterdam alongside Rude, Carpeaux, Rodin, Despiau and Maillol.

Charles Malfray died suddenly in 1940 in Dijon.
It was only after his death, through exhibitions and retrospectives in the 1950s, that Charles Malfray became, alongside Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol, one of the great figures of twentieth-century sculpture. Numerous figurative sculptors, notably the Group of Nine (Jean Carton, Raymond Corbin, Paul Cornet, Marcel Damboise, Léon Indenbaum, Léopold Kretz, Gunnar Nilsson, Jean Osouf and Raymond Martin), worked to perpetuate his memory.

the work

in its context

On several occasions during his career, Charles Malfray worked on the theme of dance, both as a personal subject of study and as part of commissions, as was the case with Danse debout, a colossal sculpture in white stone intended to adorn the courtyard of honour of the Musée Municipal d’Art Moderne, Quai de Tokyo, at the 1937 Universal Exhibition.
But we can’t approach this subject without mentioning the figure of Isadora Duncan, who greatly inspired Charles Malfray.
A famous dancer of the early twentieth century, Isadora Duncan revolutionised dance practice by laying the foundations for modern dance. Rising up against the formalism and codification of an art that had become too formal in her eyes, she wanted to free dancers’ bodies from the constraints of what we now call classical dance. By advocating a return to the model of ancient Greek figures and greater freedom of expression, Isadora Duncan sowed the seeds of an aesthetic revolution that gave birth to contemporary dance. A veritable muse for many artists of her time, Isadora Duncan was modelled by Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Maurice Denis.

Isadora Duncan dancing on the beach
Isadora Daucan - Silver photography - Arnold Genthe

The influence that Isadora Duncan exerted on the young Charles Malfray, when he met her in the presence of Auguste Rodin at her home in 1904, is undeniable.

Himself in opposition to the principles of academic teaching, Charles Malfray could not help but be captivated by this free and daring woman, many of whose sketches and drawings he produced.

Charles Malfray died tragically in 1927, but he continued to draw inspiration from Isadora Duncan, producing a series of sculptures of dancers and drawings in 1937 and 1938, including this one.

Isadora Duncan raises her arms to the sky. Photograph from a series of studies
Isadora Duncan - Silver photograph - New York 1915-1918


Jacques de Laprade, Charles Malfray, dessins et sculptures, Mourlot, Paris, 1945

Charles Malfray, préface d’André Chamson, Paris, Petit Palais, 1947.

Alexandrian, Dictionnaire universel de l’art et des Artistes, Paris, Hazan, 1967.

Denys Chevalier, Nouveau dictionnaire de la sculpture moderne, Paris, Hazan, 1970.

  • The Dance – Bronze Statue – musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans – France
  • Sitting woman – Red chalk drawing – Musée d’Art moderne de Paris – France – Femme assise | Paris Musées
  • Sleeping woman – Red chalk drawing – Musée d’Art moderne de Paris – France – Femme endormie | Paris Musées
  • The Dance – High relief in patinated plaster – Musée national d’art moderne, Paris – France – La danse – Centre Pompidou

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