1868 – 1916
The violet wave
[La vague violette] 1895-96
oil on canvas
canvas 73.0 (h) x 92.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1988
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Lacombe visited the coastal village of Camaret-sur-mer in Brittany every summer from 1888 onwards. First taught to paint by family friends such as Gervex, Lacombe’s career was galvanised by meeting Sérusier in 1892, then by seeing Gauguin’s woodcarvings in Paris in 1893. Although primarily a sculptor and decorator in wood, he joined the Nabis—who dubbed him the ‘Nabi sculptor’—and painted in an individualistic style in the 1890s.
Instead of painting the picturesque costumed Breton peasant women favoured by other artists, Lacombe often depicted unpeopled scenes: landscapes of brooding, druidic forests or rocky caves. He used the bright, restricted palette favoured by Sérusier and others: ‘Three or four colours, carefully chosen, are enough, and quite expressive. Any more colours would only lessen the painting’s impact,’ Sérusier wrote in 1892.1 In The violet wave, the artist employed purple-black for the rocks, white tinted violet for the raging surf, and orange to yellow hues for the cliffs and sky. Such an artificial colour scheme reinforces the ‘scientific’ colour theories current at the time, and particularly the idea of complementary opposites. Yellow, one of the primary colours, is intensified by violet, made by mixing red and blue, the other two primaries.
The violet wave shows a rocky cave under the cliffs of Toulinguet, a peninsula near Camaret in Brittany. But instead of portraying the cave from outside, Lacombe looked through the mouth of the cave out onto the sea and sky. Swirling, rhythmic strokes of paint mimic the arabesque lines and shapes used in Japanese woodblock prints, which came to haunt, even define, Art Nouveau. Interlocked dark purplish-black rocks dominate the central view. The stifling interior is accentuated by the power of a wave rushing in to fill the cave, replacing air with seawater. It is as though we, the viewers, are inside a whale, swallowed like Jonah in the Bible.2
The strange power of the image is reinforced by its decorative forms and anti-naturalistic style:
Lacombe, by his refusal of realism, introduces us into a symbolic world: a kind of flux and surge of life, where the two contemplative forms, fusing with nature, stretch towards the sky, the only point of exit in the painting. The violet-mauve monochrome, precious and rare in this case, and the golden rose of the sky give this work an almost mystical meaning, and we can enter a world of musical correspondences.3
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Letter to Jan Verkade, quoted in Joëlle Ansieau, Georges Lacombe 1868–1916, catalogue raisonné, Paris: Somogy 1998, p. 61.
- Also suggested by Caroline Mathieu, ‘George Lacombe’, in The Impressionists: masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria 2004, p. 176.
- Catherine Gendre, ‘Catalogue no. 3’, in Georges Lacombe 1868–1916, Versailles: Musée Lambinet 1984, p. 26 (trans. by author).