Gustave Courbet – La Vague (the Waves)

THE picture which has become so widely known under this name was called “La Mer Orageuse” in the Salon catalogue of 1870. Many people preferred it to the “Falaise d’Etretat ” which was painted and exhibited at the same time.

” I was even more struck by ‘La Mer Orageuse, wrote Castagnary.” It is not a partial and local description like the cliff just mentioned; it is the eternal drama which is being played in all countries, on all shores, when the tempest begins to roar, and the sky is heavy with clouds, and the waves heave and toss and are crowned with foam and ships going out to sea scud along like birds at the mercy of the winds. Courbet was fortunate enough last summer at Etretat to see all this from his window and to be able to set it down there and then, a rare concurrence of conditions. This it is that gives his picture its rightness, its precision and the sober truth with which it is characterized. . Sky and sea are both drawn with the same care and painted with that supple, elegant, harmonious quality of paint. which makes Courbet at the same time a great and subtle colourist. As I write I am reminded of Eugène Delacroix’s seascapes. I should like to place ‘La Mer Orageuse’ side by side with one of those beautiful pictures which I see in my imagination– ‘Le Naufrage de Don Juan’ or ‘Jésus dans la Tempete,’ especially the latter. . Which would bear away the palm ? I do not know; but so far as I can tell from what I remember it seems to me—and I beg pardon if I blaspheme the last of the romantics—that the Ornans master would not be worsted.”

Less kindly was Paul de Saint-Victor, who saw neither the grandiose arabesque, nor the powerful and harmonious colouring, nor the splendid sky and only made this perfectly justifiable objection: “I find ‘La Mer Orageuse’ much less to my taste. No doubt the artist has rendered the tremendous, sonorous, roaring of it all, but it seems instead of waves to be rolling rocks from the shore and shingle from the beach. You may look in vain for a drop of water in this petrified ocean. lf you took any portion of this picture at random and showed it to anyone who had not seen the whole he would take it for a piece of a wall.”

“La Vague” fetched 17,000 francs in 1872 at the Courbet sale and the State bought it from M. Haro in 1878 for 20,000 francs, There is a slightly different copy in which the boats in the foreground are replaced by a rock.