By the 1880s Bouguereau's reputation as a leading figure of French Academic painting was internationally established and, with his assumption of the presidency of the Socit des artistes franais in 1881, he garnered uncontestable influence over the Paris Salon. La vague was Bouguereau's submission to the Salon of 1896 and it is a prime example of the Academic cannons he extolled. In keeping within the strictures of appropriate subject matter, La Vague derives from the classical text of the Birth of Venus. Bouguereau's images of bathers had earned him high regard and his previous interpretations of the Birth of Venus had met with similar success. In 1857 he had been commissioned by the Parisian banker Emile Pereire to decorate two rooms in his home and Bouguereau painted The Triumph of Venus (sold, Christie's, New York, 22 October 1997, lot 22) as part of a cycle which played on the theme of day and night. His later Naissance de Venus (1879) was purchased by the State for the Muse de Luxembourg. The present painting, however, differs from both of these earlier models which had shown Venus upright and surrounded by putti, nymphs and sea gods. In La Vague Bougureau reduces the composition to its most basic narrative elements thereby presenting his most powerful evocation of the scene. The figure is isolated and seated horizontally on the sand as the waves tower behind her.
Damion Bartoli notes that the present painting represents part of Bouguereau's fantaises that had occupied his production since 1855 and presages two of his later works, L'Ocnide (1904, Muse des Beaux-Arts de La Rochelle) and La Vague (1903, Private Collection). He identifies the model as Odile Charpentier who Bouguereau posed in three other paintings that same year: Mditation, Rverie and Secrets de l'amour.
Bouguereau strove for accuracy in every detail of his painting. A master draftsman and colorist, he was known to sketch the ankle or hand of his models for hours in an effort to convey realism in the finished painting. He focused equal attention to the depiction of the environs in which he set his figures. This is no more apparent than in the present painting in which he captures the effects of the ocean's spray and foam after a storm, and the reflection of the body cast against the wet sand. Bouguereau was also an admirer of Greco-Roman sculpture and the pose of the figure in La Vague derives from the classical depiction of river gods.
There exists a small oil study for La vague as well as a graphite study, both of which are in private collections. In the seminal catalogue from the 1984 Bouguereau exhibition, Louise d'Argencourt discusses the subject of La vague as being part of Bouguereau's 'bathers' and comments on the realism of the preliminary drawing in which she notes: "There is realism in the modeling, in which the textural treatment of the skin and muscles is so precise as to reveal the age of the model. There is realism in the perspective, with the front planes of the hip and thigh enlarged as though seen through a camera lense. In addition, the direct gaze of the model shows nothing of the affectation common to most of Bouguereau's other figures of the period. The nude figure, transferred to canvas with a background of rough sea, produces a startling effect" (L. d'Argencourt, William Bouguereau, exh. cat., Montreal, 1984, p. 249).
This work will be included in the upcoming catalogue raisonn on William Bouguereau currently being prepared by Damien Bartoli with the assistance of Frederick Ross, the Bouguereau Committee and the American Society of Classical Realism.
(fig. 1) William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Sketch for La vague.