Important Art by Aristide Maillol
Maillol moved to Paris in 1881 (aged 20) and from 1884 he had taken to returning home for the summer months. It was there that he "discovered" natural light, and between 1885 and 1886, he produced several paintings of old stone hillside houses from a high vantage point using impressionistic daubs of varying density and length.
The famous (last) Eighth Impressionist Exhibition of 1886 - which brought together works by Degas, Cassatt, Zandomeneghi, Forain, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro - coincided with the birth, through Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, of Neo-Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism immediately signalled the onset of Post-Impressionism and Maillol had been captivated by the works which he discovered at the Salon des Independants.
His early paintings of this period experimented with a combination of styles. During his summer jaunts, Maillol painted the facades of the village of Puig-del Mas experimenting with the Post-Impressionist style that borrowed from Van Gogh, Matisse, and Degas. These works had their own poetic quality but it was House in Roussillon that proved to be his first significant work. Maillol had, over two summers, finessed a markedly different approach to the landscape by bringing to the countryside the subtle pastel tones and delicate precision associate with Degas. Indeed, House in Roussillon is as much about the artist's delicate modulation of hues and light as it is about technical accuracy. The art critic Maurice Guillemot so admired this piece that he visited the artist in his studio, and while Guillemot implored Maillol to produce more landscapes in this style, the artist's future was headed in a different direction.
A naked woman, with long dark hair and her back facing the viewer, dominates the center of The Wave. Stumbling in blue-green water that reaches to her upper thigh, she seems to be at the mercy of natural forces. Indeed, the crest of a long wave, capped with a line of white foam, is travelling down towards her from the top of the canvas.
This work serves as an important example of the paintings Maillol created early in his career. It embodies the style of the Nabi group; most evident here in the vivid, large patches of color which make up the water and the flat forms of the figures. It is thought the painting was inspired by the group's leader (and Maillol's idol) Paul Gauguin. Maillol's fascination with the water, so much a part of his childhood, is also evident here. Acknowledging this he once wrote, "I do studies of the sea. It feels strange painting the sea, you never know what colour it is".
While Maillol is better known for his female nude sculptures, this painting provides one of his earliest explorations into the subject; which he was only able to do having found a willing model in his wife, Clotilde Narcisse. According to author Bertrand Lorquin, this painting may have been created originally with the intention of being used as a design for the stage; an artistic pursuit Maillol took up briefly during this period.
Typical of Maillol's small-scale sculptures, Leda features is seated nude female. However, her head is bowed; her body turned towards her right; while her left arm is raised with palm outstretched as if attempting to push away (rather than invite the gaze of) the viewer.
A narrative piece, this work, one of his earliest bronze sculptures, is Maillol's interpretation of the Greek myth in which the god Zeus takes the form of a swan in order to seduce the Spartan Queen, Leda. While the subject has been the source of great inspiration for artists, not least the masters of the Renaissance, Maillol's approach is the very embodiment of modernity. While his preliminary sketches and early drafts reveal an attempt to include the swan, in the final work we see that it has been removed. The forward-thinking approach to this work lies in the fact, as explained by author Bertrand Lorquin, that, "the only reference to the violence of the myth is the gesture of her raised hand repelling the god's advances with deep shame. There are in fact no overt allusions at all to the myth, which has been pared down to the delicate pose of a young girl leaning forward slightly to push back the ardor of an invisible god". Even as his sculptures became more ambitious in scale, it was the isolated form of the female figure who will be all that links the viewer to the original source of the myth.
Having been bought by one of his patrons, the French writer Octave Mirbeau, the sculpture made a strong impact on fellow Frenchman Pierre-Auguste Rodin. When the legendary sculptor saw Leda on display in Mirbeau's home, Rodin commented, "Maillol is as great as the greatest sculptors. In that little bronze, you see, he sets an example for everyone, the old master as well as the young neophyte. (...) What's admirable about Maillol, and I'll even say what is eternal about him, is the purity, the luminousness, the transparency of his technique and thought".