Gustave Courbet – La Vague Aux Trois Barques (the Sea With Three Boats)

JUST when the painter seemed to have made up his mind to conquer public opinion with striking subjects and technical concessions, his talent suddenly seemed to spring into active life again in the creation of a series of magnificently powerful, and sanely simple, seascapes.

The three examples here reproduced belong to this period and date from the artist’s stay at Etretat in 1869, though we have to go farther back to find Courbet’s first attempts at sea-painting.

It was during his walks round Montpellier, in 1854, at Palavas, Maguelonne, Camargue, that he first revealed his passion for the sea. In 1859 Zacharie Astruc excitedly discovered in his studio the studies he had brought back with him from that journey: “they express every hour of the day, all the strange changes of the sea, the liquid, tempestuous, profound sky, infinite as the sea. Effects of sunlight, sea-fog, wind, grey morning twilight, the luminous serenity of midday, the veiled and tranquil mystery of the evening. Here a few ships skimming like birds across the clear face of the water; . . . again, the lighthouse battered by the waves, a boat tossing on the strand; . . there a troop of wild white horses almost merged into the_ pale colour of the waves, while they listen to their dying plaint, waves tossing and scudding; and again the unbroken gloomy solitude stretching away and away, terrifying, menacing in its power and grandeur-the purple sea boldly marking the horizon against the blue sky…. Every poem of the sea combined and expressed in tones so simple, so delicate, so great, so bold and so true! ”

A little later in 1859 accompanied by Schanne, Courbet went to Havre to discover the channel.

There he met Boudin, who took him to Honfleur and introduced him to Claude Monet. To this period belong “Les Falaises de Honfleur,” “Le Coucher de Soleil sur la Manche,” and “L’Embouchure de la Seine.”

From that time on Courbet spent every possible summer with his friends on the Normandy coast. He was there in 1864, 1865 and 1866, at Trouville, whence he wrote to Bruyas: “I have just painted twenty-five seascapes in the same style as the one you have and those I painted at Cabanes; twenty-five autumn skies, each one more extraordinary and free than the last, it is very amusing.” Most of the seascapes in the 1867 exhibition date from this period.