Sam Francis painted Violet, Yellow and White in 1958, during the end of his eight-year stay in Paris and a year after an influential trip to Japan. Its dense network of jewel tones--azure blues, golden yellows, aubergine purples--hint at a deepening array of other brilliant hues. Violet, Yellow and White is a prime example of how Francis achieved a balance between openness and density, a state of equilibrium in which color reinstated its dominance and began its advance back into the area once dominated by the white canvas.
An inclination towards rich colors partly reflects Francis' origins in sunny, verdant California. It also elicits the vigorous influence that many of the Impressionist masters, including Claude Monet, had on the young artist upon his arrival to Europe. Francis' initial reliance on a restrained palette of whites and greys--a likely response to the first dreary winter he spent in Paris--was quickly abandoned in exchange for the vibrant, sensuous colors aligned with the French tradition. The lush mosaic of brilliant colors in Violet, Yellow and White recalls this influence. Francis cites his exposure to Eastern philosophies as reason for the seemingly paradoxical incorporation of an open canvas into the composition: "He reflects on the symbolism of white as the imperial color of magnificence and nobility, as the color of Great Jove, the albatross, and the veil of Christianity's deity, but he also notes that it is the color of evil, transcendent horror, and great panic, the shroud of death and the fog of ghosts" (P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 62). The work can also be viewed as an exaggerated reference to traditional Japanese haboku landscapes, in which spontaneous brushstrokes shoot like lightning bolts across the composition. "He is familiar with Eastern thought," notes Arnold Rüdlinger in the introductory essay to Francis's 1957 exhibition in Berlin, "The last gouaches show he knows how to employ silence and the void of Oriental painting as artistic means of expression" (A. Rüdlinger, ibid., p. 65). In this regard, Francis has not only found a balance between color and its absence, but also between Western and Eastern approaches to artistic expression.
The drippings down the canvas recall Francis' formative training in watercolor, while his signature matrix of gestural strokes and biomorphic forms signify life and growth. Francis had often pondered the significance of life, particularly after a debilitating accident in 1943 that left him crippled and confined to a hospital bed for several months. It was lying there, gazing at the shifting patterns of light that danced across the ceiling, that Francis became inspired to articulate his visions through painting. According to James Johnson Sweeney, "What most interested him was the quality of light itself not just the play of light, but the substance from which light is made" (J. J. Sweeney, quoted in P. Selz, op. cit., p. 34). The emergence of his signature style of dripping, organic shapes coincided with his move to Paris--a reverse trek for an artist in 1950, as many of the American painters chose to reject the European tradition at this time. However, it is because of this alternative creative journey that Francis was able to distance himself from the aggressively expressive work of his peers, instead producing luminescent, elegant and visually balanced paintings like Violet, Yellow and White.
His emphasis on color, and his placement of it at the heart of the composition, derives from the Fauvist tradition in which color is elevated to the utmost reverence, permitted to exist on a purely emotional level. Francis found substance in this belief, and his own glorification of color and light was largely shaped by a trip to the south of France to visit the widow of Henri Matisse. Matisse was a hero to Francis, and during the trip he was galvanized by the deceased artist's stained glass window at Chapel of the Rosary, through which rays of light pierced the darkness in a dramatically visual demonstration. Francis went on to create canvases inspired by the divine experience, and recollections of that influence appear in Violet, Yellow and White, where golden hues attempt to push through the shapes of deep violet, ultimately prevailing in a triumphant display at the top of the canvas. For Francis, color was everything: "Color is light on fire," he once remarked. "Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color" (S. Francis, quoted in J. Butterfield, Sam Francis, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 9-10). Perhaps this apotheosis reaches beyond that of Matisse, who explored color in figurative forms: Francis, who believed figuration interrupted the celebration of color, proclaims its significance in the title, Violet, Yellow and White, which reiterates color's role as the exclusive subject of the work.