DURING the 1867 exhibition Courbet left Paris for a few days and went to Saint Aubin-sur-Mer, in Calvados, to bathe and to add a few studies to his Channel seascapes. But the greatest pictures of the series date from the artist’s stay at Etretat in 1869 with Diaz and his son. That resort made known by Isabey and Alphonse Karr, was not then over-crowded and the artist could indulge his nautical propensities as much as he liked. ( The sailors called him the “seal.”) Some of the rude health of his life is expressed in the numerous studies painted at that time.
Two of them are famous: “La Vague,” in the Louvre, and the “Falaise d’Etretat,” both exhibited in the 187o Salon. “Though I cannot join the pan of his enthusiastic admirers,” wrote Paul de Saint-Victor, ” I appreciate M. Courbet’s two seascapes. There is a certain amount of exaggeration, even, one might say, of over-emphasis, in the mineralogical profusion with which he has endowed his rocks in the “Falaise d’Etretat. ” They are glittering with the whole category of precious stones, from diamonds to malachite. But there is grandeur in the view, and the execution is free and solid; the sky shines with that fresh brilliance that it always shows after a storm. The piece only fails in the matter of perspective both in drawing and in colour. ”
That defect has be n laid at the door of every open-air painter by critics accustomed to the scientific and rather conventional perspective of studio landscape. Castagnary seems to us to have been better inspired in his unreserved praise of this splendid picture: ” These two seascapes by Gustave Courbet must be placed in the very first rank among our masterpieces, in the lofty region of great art, where idea and execution are in perfect accord. This year I fancy that even his most determined adversaries must be silenced and that there will be a unanimous verdict in favour of the great painter. ‘Le Falaise d’Etretat’ with its simplicity of composition, its powerful aspect of truth, its grey rocks topped with a velvety carpet of gramineous plants, its luminous fresh sky, just washed by a storm, its waves heaving to the farthest horizon, the cavities in which the water is coloured by the faint shadows, the free and joyous air that fills the picture and envelops every detail, and, above all, its truthful rendering which banishes art from the picture and leaves only Nature, is most striking, astonishing, moving, and must rouse admiration in every spectator in proportion with the degree of sensibility with which he has been endowed.’
There are two slightly different copies of the “Falaise d’Etretat.” One was bought by Brame in1870 for 8,000 francs. The other was sold in 1872 for 13,000 francs.