This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné on William-Adolphe Bouguereau currently being prepared by Damien Bartoli with the assistance of Frederick Ross, the Bouguereau Committee and the American Society of Classical Realism.
By the time William-Adophe Bouguereau had started to paint La vague, he had been enjoying heightened celebrity alongside other highly esteemed contemporary painters such as Alexandre Cabanel for a number of years. Having made his mark upon the art world not only in Paris, but on an international scale, he had gained a reputation as the archetypal French Salon painter.
Remaining faithful to the time-honoured framework of the classical nude, Bouguereau presented La vague as his entry for the Salon of 1896. Following the critical successes of The Triumph of Venus (sold Christie's, New York, 22 October 1998, lot 22), which played upon the themes of night and day, and his later more typical Naissance de Vénus (1879), Bouguereau presented to the art world an altogther more impressive rendition of the concept. Although staunchly traditional with regard to the subject matter, La vague gave way to a sharpened sense of realism to the otherwise ethereal nude female bather. Moving on from the upright nude surrounded by putti, nymphs and sea-gods, Bouguereau reduces the composition to the most basic narrative elements thereby presenting his most powerful evocation of the genre.
Damion Bartoli identified the model for this work as Odile Charpentier who posed for three other of his paintings of the same year; Méditation, Rëverie and Secrets de l'Amour. However, he also notes that Bouguereau hired another model for the head: it seems to resemble a certain Mlle. Gabrielle, 'petite et grasse' according to an inscription by the artist on the reverse of one of the esquisses for the painting. Adding somewhat to the long standing debate over who modelled for this work, one critic published in L'intermédiare des Curieux et des Chercheurs (1906) that he felt there was in fact a third model that had captured the artist's imagination, a certain Marthe-Camille Devallière. Striving for accuracy in every detail of his painting, he was known to sketch the ankle or hand of these models for hours in an effort to convey realism in the finished work. A master draftsman and colourist, he also focused equal attention on the depiction of the environment in which he placed his figures. This attention to detail is no more apparent than in La vague in which he captures the effects of the ocean's spray and foam after a storm, and reflection of the body cast against the wet sand.
There is a small oil study for La vague as well as a graphite study, both of which remain 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 the artist's series of bathers and comments on the realism of the preliminary drawing in which she notes that "....there is realism in the modelling, in which the textural treatment of the skin and the 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 lens. In addition, the direct gaze of the model shows nothing of the affection common to most of Bouguereau's other figures of the period. The nude figure, transferred to canvas with a background of rough seas, produces a startling effect." (L. d'Argencourt, William Bouguereau, Exhibition Catalogue, Montreal, 1984, p. 249).