‘O Man, so long as you are free you will cherish the sea! The sea is your looking glass; you contemplate your own soul in the infinite unfolding of its waves, while your mind is a no less bitter gulf.’
Charles Baudelaire, 1852
Gustave Courbet, The Shore at Trouville: Sunset Effect, c.1865/69. Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 102.2cm Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund
The most important influences for French marine painting of the 1830s and 1840s were the stormy seascapes and beach scenes of seventeenth-century Dutch painters who worked in a country under continual threat from flooding. The danger inherent in the sea, expressed in a romantic masterpiece like Théodore Géricault’s (1791–1824) The Raft of the ‘Medusa’ would inspire his admirer Eugène Isabey (1803–1886) who, along with other artists, painted a series of storms and shipwrecks as well as constructing a picturesque view of the coastal inhabitants. His Low Tide (cat. 1) contrasts the calm of a harbour with the storm-tossed sea, while fishermen seek to secure a beached boat.
Images of maritime destruction were exploited by Victor Hugo (1802–1885) in his novel Toilers of the Sea, 1866, which pits his hero against a sinister and untrustworthy force. In contrast, Alphonse Karr’s (1808–1890 ) popular novel Le Chemin le plus court of 1836 gave Parisians a lyrical description of the seaside village of Etretat, which had already attracted the attention of artists, and portrayed the lives of the inhabitants of the coast in terms of simplicity and virtue, compared to the moral corruption of the city. In 1861, the historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874) published his book The Sea, glorifying the ocean as a force for rejuvenation, an almost maternal symbol that could lead to new self-awareness and a sense of freedom.
Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) was an avowed realist, a painter who could never paint an angel because he had never seen one. Coming from the rocky valleys of Franche-Comté in Eastern France, a landscape he painted frequently, his first experience of the sea came at the age of 22 on a visit to Le Havre. Expressing a sense of liberation, he wrote to his parents, ‘We have at last seen the horizonless sea; how strange it is for a valley dweller. You feel as if you are carried away; you want to take and see the whole world.’
Apart from some Mediterranean seascapes, including the famous picture of the artist greeting the ‘ocean’, Courbet did not engage with what he called ‘landscapes of the sea’ until his visits to Trouville and Deauville in 1865 and 1866. Here he painted a series of seascapes, adopting a frontal viewpoint with a low horizon, allowing the sky a dominant role in the painting.
In a large number of such pictures, many painted in the studio, Courbet varied the atmospheric conditions, capturing the drama of a water spout or the serene beauty of a calm sea. In the last, we sense the influence of his friend the American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), who painted alongside Courbet at Trouville in 1865. One of Whistler’s paintings shows the older man in solitary confrontation with the sea, and Sea and Rain has an anonymous figure isolated against an expanse of beach, sea and sky, its atmosphere suggested in broad sweeps of thinly applied paint.
Courbet returned to the Normandy coast in 1869, spending a month at the famous resort of Etretat. Here he painted the distinctive cliff formations with a sense of solidity and grandeur that would set a precedent for future painters, which Claude Monet (1840–1926) was quick to acknowledge when he approached the same subject in a very different manner. Courbet’s painting of The Wave, one of a series, has both a romantic feel and the sense of a painter conjuring up a frozen moment in which we can palpably feel the weight of water tumbling towards us. Again, Monet’s solution would prove to be very different.
Courbet was a keen swimmer and enjoyed the facilities and attractions developed for the visitors, yet there is not the slightest hint of any of this in his paintings. Instead he presents the engagement of the artist with elemental forces of a timeless nature.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide
Impressionists by the Sea: An Introduction to the Exhibition (712 KB)
, by Greg Harris.