Known primarily as one of the Nabis sculptors, Georges Lacombe (1868–1916) was also an accomplished painter, and it is his painted works that this short article concentrates on.
Born into an artistic family in Versailles, he underwent a religious education which succeeded in making him strongly anti-clerical. Although it has been claimed that he trained at the Académie Julian in Paris under Alfred Roll and Henri Gervex, two notable Naturalist painters, other sources claim that he didn’t come into contact with painters until he spent the summer in Brittany in 1892, when he met Paul Sérusier there. He then joined the Nabis in 1893, when he exhibited carved wood sculptures with them. The same year he was influenced by a large exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti.
Lacombe’s early paintings all relate to Brittany, particularly to the school of Paul Gauguin centred on Pont-Aven. Boatwomen in Brittany, painted in egg tempera on canvas at any time between 1888-99, is typical among them. It shows two Breton women rowing a boat piled high with cut wood, in a style clearly influenced by Gauguin, and not dissimilar to the work of Sérusier.
Cave in Camaret from the period 1890-97 shows a sea cave at the end of the Crozon peninsula in the far west of Brittany, not far from Cape Finistère.
Like Paul Sérusier, Lacombe was fascinated by goings-on in the woods in Brittany. This painting of Chestnut Gatherers from 1893-94 combines the Nabi flattened decorative look with a rich red more typical of the early twentieth century.
Lacombe’s Three Breton Women in the Forest from 1894 further identifies the women as being Bigoudènes, who wear their distinctive headdress in the Bigouden country in Brittany. For this painting he returned to egg tempera.
Another egg tempera painting from the same period is Lacombe’s fine portrait of Paul Sérusier, The Nabi with the Shiny Beard (c 1894). Sérusier not only looks like a wizard, but there are waves of ‘force’ emanating from the first two fingers of his right hand.
Lacombe also came under the influence of the Divisionist artist Théo Van Rysselberghe, as shown in this painting of Red Pines from about 1894.
The Ages of Life from about 1894, also painted in egg tempera on canvas, sets this classical theme in the ancient and mystical woods of Brittany.
Some of Lacombe’s sculptures are stunning: this wood carving in mahogany with added colour shows the goddess Isis, and was made in about 1895. It’s now in the Musée d’Orsay.
Isis was one of the major goddesses of ancient Egypt, whose name spread into other Mediterranean cultures, including that of the Romans. She is central to the Osiris myth, in which she resurrects her divine husband Osiris, and became associated with the entry of the dead into the afterlife. Lacombe’s symbolism here may refer to her role in producing and protecting the heir to Osiris, Horus. Interestingly, he doesn’t invoke the ankh commonly associated with her.
In the last few years of the nineteenth century, Lacombe moved on from his early style influenced by Gauguin and the Nabis, and came under the influence of Japonisme. His egg tempera painting of Vorhor, The Green Wave from 1896 shows an Atlantic swell coming into the seacliffs of Vorhor near Camaret-sur-Mer in Brittany. There are shades of Hokusai in his waves.
The Violet Wave from 1896-97 is another painting drawing on the same sources.
In 1899, Lacombe became particularly friendly with Paul Ranson, whose health was deteriorating at the time. Ranson stayed in Lacombe’s house in Alençon, Normandy, well to the west of Paris, until 1905.
Lacombe’s final style emerged after these years with Paul Ranson, and is influenced primarily by the post-Impressionism of Théo Van Rysselberghe. Oaks and Blueberry Bushes from 1905 is high in chroma and Divisionist in its facture, and quite different from any of his earlier work.
The Briante River (Forest Interior in Autumn) from about 1907 contrasts autumnal reds, greens, and mid blues.
Lacombe’s portrait of Paul Ranson on the Grounds from 1905-08 is one of his last paintings, it would appear, and is a riot of colour.
Lacombe fell ill with tuberculosis during the First World War, and died as a result of that illness in 1916, at the age of only 48. For such a cruelly short working life, he got through Gauguin post-Impressionism, Nabism, Japonism, and finally Divisionist post-Impressionism. That’s not bad for a sculptor!