fig. 1
Gustave Courbet

In 1923 Frank Rinder, the international Felton Adviser for the National Gallery of Victoria, discovered a painting titled The wave (La vague) at an exhibition in London (fig. 1). The work, which belongs to a series of marine pictures by the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, depicts a wave approaching a beach on a stormy day. In his letter to the Gallery, Rinder strongly recommended purchase:

Only once in a hundred times does even an eminent artist compass so dramatically elemental a pictorialisation of the sea. The waters of deep green convey a wonderful sense of volume and momentum, the churned foam, done with the palette knife, is arrestingly expressive, the ominously dark sky, with its break in the upper left section and elsewhere, is a broad and masterful generalisation.1 Frank Rinder, letter to E. La Touche Armstrong, begun 31 July 1923 and completed 8 August 1923; Frank Rinder Papers, National Gallery of Victoria.

What struck Rinder was the extraordinary handling of paint in this work and the mood it creates. The palette knife, that flexible metal implement traditionally used to mix colours on the artist’s palette, had been used in this painting like a paint brush. Courbet smeared thick layers of paint across the canvas in a series of broken areas, emphasising the material quality of the pigment. The dark hues of the clouds, the heaving sea, and the distant boats, whose straining sails and tilting masts evince a strong wind, all suggest stormy conditions. As Rinder pointed out, it is a powerful image of the elemental force of nature, but also a work that draws attention to its own properties and which can therefore be considered a work of early modernism.

This is not the only possible reading of this image, however. Courbet’s associations with prominent radical French writers, his involvement in the Paris Commune and imprisonment for his alleged role in the destruction of the Vendome Column have led to him being seen as an overtly political artist. This is a relatively straightforward claim with regard to his figurative works, many of which are overt forms of social critique; some commentators have also seen social and political meanings in his later landscapes and seascapes. Jules Antoine Castagnary in his catalogue essay for an 1882 retrospective of the artist’s work viewed the wave motif as carrying a meaning of political liberation at a time when ‘democracy was rising like a cresting wave’.2 J. Castagnary, Exposition des oeuvres de G. Courbet à l’Ecole des beaux-arts, Paris, 1882, p. 26, quoted in T. Gott, ‘Gustave Courbet, The wave’ in 19th Century Painting and Sculpture in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 46. More recently, the German art historian Klaus Herding has argued that the dissolving forms of Courbet’s wave paintings are part of an argument in favour of social equality in which ‘the sea … stood as a metaphor for the people’.3 K. Herding, Courbet: To Venture Independence, New Haven, 1991, p. 96. But how legitimate is this socio-political reading of Courbet’s seascape paintings, particularly those that feature almost no human presence, such as The wave? In this essay I will seek to answer this question.

Judging from the critical response, Courbet’s early figurative images of the French countryside were disturbing to the middle-class Salon audience in Paris.4 One of the many criticisms of A burial at Ornans, for example, was that it portrayed a ‘long file of ludicrous masks and deformities copied from life’ (quoted in T. J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic 1848–1851, Greenwich, 1973, p. 138). Unlike Jean-François Millet, who depicted a countryside inhabited by peasants conforming to ancient, changeless social patterns, Courbet, in A burial at Ornans (Un enterrement à Ornans), 1849–50 (fig. 2), portrayed the provincial bourgeoisie.5 R. Herbert, ‘City vs. country: The rural image in French painting from Millet to Gaugin’, ArtForum vol. 8, no. 6, February 1970, pp. 50–1. As T. J. Clark relates, the rural middle class featured in this painting had recently been the target of peasant revolts in country areas, which threatened to destabilise French society.6 Clark, pp. 96–7, 151–2. By presenting a class who had been the target of such conflicts, Courbet shattered comfortable, urban myths about the peaceful harmony of the countryside, thereby disrupting conventional Parisian understandings of provincial France. The official disapproval of this and subsequent pictures led Courbet to set up private exhibitions of his work in opposition to the Salon, earning him a reputation as an intransigent artist politically at odds with the dominant metropolitan class and its institutions in mid-century France.

While it is possible to speak this way of the figure paintings of the late 1840s and early 1850s, Courbet’s landscapes present a challenge to this argument, as they lack the immediate social dimension of the represented figure.7 Linda Nochlin reads the increasing prevalence of landscapes among the artist’s works after 1855 as a turning away from politically engaged art (see L. Nochlin, Gustave Courbet: A Study of Style and Society, New York, 1976, p. 225). Courbet’s landscapes after 1854 are characterised by a radical simplification of motif and a highly evident facture, or method of painting. The stream of the Black Well, valley of the Loue (Doubs) (Le ruisseau du Puits Noir, vallée de la Loue (Doubs)) of 1855 (fig. 3), which depicts a remote and inaccessible portion of the Loue River in the artist’s native Franche-Comte region of western France, is a densely painted scene which refuses viewers’ expectations of a visual penetration into the landscape. The paint surface is radically present on the areas depicting rocks, where the pigment seems to oscillate between an assertion of rock surface and paint surface. Similar qualities can be observed in The wave, whose thick layers of knifed-on paint present what appears to be a wall of pigment. Although the eye is led toward the horizon by the distant sailboats that skate across the water, the centrally placed wave obstructs the place where we would normally expect to find a vanishing point, and the heavily painted treatment of the clouds is more reminiscent of the rugged cliffs visible in the Franche-Comte region than any sky seen in nature. Klaus Herding looks upon such features in the artist’s landscape work as evidence of a socially critical intention. For Herding, Courbet’s landscapes conveyed an explicit form of political opposition to contemporary metropolitan values. In support of his argument that the natural world served as a symbol of provincial resistance and freedom, Herding points out that the towering cliffs in Courbet’s paintings of the region around Ornans were expressly compared by contemporary critics to citadels and fortresses.8 Herding, p. 79. Herding also argues that the repelling quality of the impenetrable foliage and rocks in his forest scenes reminds the Parisian viewer to respect the autonomy of the natural world in the artist’s province.9 ibid., p. 77. He further notes Courbet’s development in the later landscapes of an ‘almost homogeneous, egalitarian picture surface’ in which the artist distributed colour in a manner relatively indifferent to what was depicted.10 ibid., p. 126. It is this tendency, which he calls ‘dissolution’ and which Herding also observes in the seascapes, that he interprets as a pictorial argument for ‘presenting nature as a model of social equality’, in opposition to the authoritarian and centralist politics of the Emperor of France, Napoleon III.11 ibid., 93, 98.

In evaluating the relevance of Herding’s argument for interpretation of The wave, it is important to understand the context in which this particular work was created. The work has recently been dated by Jean-Jacques Fernier to after 1872, a period in which Courbet was living far away from the sea, at first in his native Ornans and then later in exile in Switzerland.12 Letter from Jean-Jacques Fernier to Sonia Dean, 1 March 1993, Courbet file, National Gallery of Victoria. Nevertheless, it strongly relates to the artist’s memory of a series of visits he made to the northern coast of France in the 1860s, to Trouville and Étretat, both popular seaside resort towns. Unlike so many of his earlier figurative and landscape works, this work is not an expression of the artist’s long acquaintance with the country of his birth, but rather is a remembered experience of a place that was relatively foreign to him.13 Courbet in a letter to his family in 1841 remarked on the unfamiliarity of the sea as an environment after his first trip to Normandy: ‘We finally saw the sea, the horizonless sea – how odd for a valley dweller’, quoted in P. Chu (ed.), Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 38. In the seascapes, therefore, Courbet approached his subject with an unfamiliarity similar to that of his metropolitan audience.

Courbet was among a new generation of French people who, due to the growth of the railways in the nineteenth century linking the capital to the coast, could spend time on vacation by the seaside.14 G. Groom, ‘The sea as metaphor in nineteenth-century France’, in J. Wilson-Bareau & D. Degener (eds), Manet and the Sea, Philadelphia, p. 40. During his visits to these popular locations Courbet painted portraits of wealthy tourists and the series of seascape pictures, which the artist referred to as his paysages de mer. His level of output was prodigious: during a three-month visit to Trouville he produced literally dozens of paintings, and in one letter dated 1866 he claimed to have devoted no longer than two hours to painting each seascape.15 Courbet, letter to Alfred Bruyas, January 1866; letter to Urbain Cuenot, April 6 1866, in Chu, Letters, pp. 273, 277. The sea pictures were enormously popular. Not only did they sell in great numbers at private galleries, they also received approval at official state exhibitions in Paris.16 For the popularity of Courbet’s seascapes among the art-buying public, see P. Chu, ‘Courbet et la commercialisation de son oeuvre’, in J. Zutter (ed.), Courbet – Artiste et promoteur de son oeuvre, pp. 77–8. As Courbet wrote to his sister about his two marine paintings exhibited at the 1870 Paris Salon: ‘They continue to be the rage. The salon where they are is jammed with people’.17 Courbet, letter to Juliette Courbet, 11 May 1870, in Chu, Letters, p. 375. The earlier disdain for Courbet’s figurative works had seemingly melted before the artist’s paysages de mer.

To what can we attribute the enormous popularity of Courbet’s sea pictures among the middle-class Parisian public, and what does this imply for arguments about their socio-political content? As Anne Wagner has pointed out, it was believed in this period that the simplicity of motif in contemporary landscape painting could provide mental refreshment to the urban dweller. In an 1862 article, the French art critic Champfleury responded to the question ‘why is the simplest landscape attractive to us?’ by answering that ‘a man weighed down with business, his head filled up with grand projects’, finds an antidote to his exhausted state in simple images of nature, such as ‘a rock, some water which bathes this rock, some green trees which form an arch above a moist patch of grass’.18 Champfleury, ‘Le rôle important des paysagistes à notre epoque’ in Le Courrier artistique, 15 February 1862, quoted in A. Wagner, ‘Courbet’s landscapes and their market’, Art History, vol. 4, no. 4, December 1981, p. 425. For landscape painting to provide the replenishment of the urban subject, it had to be the opposite of the contemporary metropolitan world; simple and uninhabited. Wagner argues that these aspects of Courbet’s later landscapes fed into a pre-existing, urban mythology about the countryside that recommended them to a popular market.

Wagner argues further that Courbet’s treatment of landscape in his later career put an increasing emphasis on a homogenous picture surface, or what she calls ‘effect’.19 Wagner, p. 424. In contrast to more conventional landscape paintings where a series of individual details are arranged on the canvas to give the impression of a specific place and an ordered, readable world, Courbet’s later landscapes dissolved the distinction between depicted things to the point where the subject became the paint itself. Wagner concludes:

Courbet’s audience can find a kind of refuge in metier … In valuing ‘effect’ in place of a more complex textuality, the bourgeois market also valued materiality, facture, as the agent of that fiction … Courbet devised a new variation on landscape form, easy, effective, immediately legible.20 ibid., pp. 426–7.

Unlike Herding, Wagner interprets the painterly dissolution and highly evident facture in Courbet’s landscape technique not as a form of social critique but as a fulfilment of the metropolitan, bourgeois audience’s need for a pleasing antidote to the turmoil of urban life.21 John House makes a similar argument to Wagner from the observation that Courbet’s sea pictures omit all evidence of the thriving tourist industry in the locales he paints. House interprets this as an instance of Courbet feeding the urban market for a mythical illusion of a one-on-one encounter with nature (see J. House ‘Courbet’s lost laundresses’, Art in America, vol. 83, no. 2, February 1995, pp. 80, 87).

In disagreeing with Wagner’s argument insofar as it applies to Courbet’s wave pictures, I will also distance myself from the strict parallels Herding establishes between formal qualities and explicit political positions. To begin with, both Herding and Wagner are wrong to characterise the late landscapes as having a homogenous picture surface. In The wave, for example, Courbet significantly altered his handling between sky and beach, swell and crest. Although there are some parallels between the broken handling of the paint depicting the clouds in the top left of the picture and the crumbly, flecked appearance of the pigment portraying foam, there are other areas, such as the surface of the ocean, in which the palette knife is far less evident. Moreover, the faint area of sky at the top edge of the canvas is quite distinct from the surrounding clouds, and the strip of beach at bottom left stands out strongly from the rest of picture. That is because here Courbet has allowed the ground layer of paint to show through.

 

In addition, neither Wagner nor Herding discuss the significant appreciation of the sea, which arose in tandem with the opening of coastal tourism to the Channel coast in the mid nineteenth century. This was expressed in popular works of Romantic French literature such as Jules Michelet’s 1861 book The Sea and Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea of 1866. As Gloria Groom argues, in the hands of these writers, the ocean was the setting for an inner journey.22 Groom, p. 38. For Michelet, who wrote about the nourishing effect of the Atlantic on the country’s inhabitants, the sea was a source of personal rejuvenation. For Hugo, the ocean was the pretext for a voyage of self-discovery in which individuals pit themselves against the elements.23 These remarks about Michelet’s and Zola’s texts are made by Groom (pp. 43–5); see also J. Zarobel, ‘Marine painting in mid-nineteenth-century France’, in Wilson-Bareau & Degener, p. 27. Hugo had created a pen-and-ink drawing along these lines in 1857 titled My destiny (Ma destinée), which shows a boat perched precariously on the crest of a vast wave (fig. 4). Courbet was undoubtedly influenced by this Romantic understanding of the sea. In a letter to Victor Hugo, he wrote regarding a proposed visit to the author on the British island of Guernsey:

I will contemplate the spectacle of your sea. The viewpoints of our mountains also offer us the limitless spectacle of immensity. The unfillable void has a calming effect … The sea! The sea with its charms saddens me. In its joyful moods, it makes me think of the laughing tiger; in its sad moods it recalls the crocodile’s tears, and in its roaring fury, the caged monster that cannot swallow me up.24 Courbet, letter to Victor Hugo, 28 November 1864, in Chu, Letters, p. 249.

 

In this letter, the rhetoric of which is close to Hugo’s own literary style, Courbet imagines the sea as an arena for expressing a variety of human emotions. For this reason it is difficult to agree with Herding’s argument that the sea paintings are primarily arguments for social equality. Rather, they appear to have provided an opportunity for Courbet to proclaim, through a mythological concept of the ocean drawn from Romanticism, the special individuality of his own vision of nature, a feature of the artist’s work that once prompted Emile Zola to remark: ‘My Courbet is simply a personality’.25 Emile Zola, ‘Mon salon’, L’ Evénement, 15 May 1866, quoted in J. House, ‘Courbet and salon politics’, Art in America, vol. 77, no. 5, May 1989, p. 215.

In her discussion of Courbet’s sea pictures within the discourse of Romanticism, Gloria Groom concludes that they demonstrate the artist’s desire to ‘assert his mastery over the sea as subject’.26 Groom, p. 39. However, Courbet’s relationship to the Romantic legacy needs to be qualified. Whereas Hugo in My destiny revels in the opposition between the untrammelled forces of nature and the perilous situation faced by the boat, Courbet, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once observed, avoids such extreme contrasts created for dramatic effect.27 P.-J. Proudhon, ‘Du principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale’, in C. Bouglé & H. Moysset (eds), Oeuvres complètes de P.-J. Proudhon, Paris, 1939, quoted in L. Nochlin, Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848–1900: Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs, 1966, p. 52. Instead, he allows the natural motif to speak for itself. The most important thing that Courbet gleaned from French Romanticism was the idea that nature cannot be easily tamed. In spite of the fact that he described the ocean as a caged monster that poses no threat, the critical reception of Courbet’s sea pictures, including that of The wave, demonstrates that the artist refused to ‘tame’ the Normandy foreshore. He achieved this by preventing its straightforward consumption, through art, by metropolitan viewers.

 

Although many contemporary critics marvelled at Courbet’s technique in these works, certain reviewers over the years have been perturbed by the artist’s depiction of the ocean. Although there are no known comments on the NGV picture contemporary to the date of its production, there are several comments about a work upon which the present picture is based, the The stormy sea, otherwise known as The wave (La mer orageuse, dit aussi La vague), exhibited at the 1870 Salon (fig. 5). Paul de Saint-Victor made the following observation of the work which depicts a cresting wave:

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. If 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.28 P. de Saint-Victor, ‘Salon de 1870’, La Liberté, 5 June 1870, quoted in M.-A. Tippetts, Les marines des peintres vues par les littérateurs de Diderot aux Goncourts, Paris, 1966, p. 183, translated in Antiques Digest online at .

Similarly, Theodore Banville in the same year reproached Courbet for his ‘dangerous work with the palette knife which, in some spots, gives to the sea waves the gloss, the polish and solidity of agate’.29 T. de Banville, ‘Salon de 1870’, Le national, 7 May 1870, reprinted in Critique litteraire, artistique et musical choisie, Paris, 2003, p. 332. A similar theme was repeated by a viewer of The wave at its first Australian showing in 1924. The critic for the Argus commented: ‘The wave, which is painted with the palette knife, is anything but liquid’.30 See ‘Felton Bequest purchases: disappointing additions’, The Argus, 23 January 1924, p. 15, in T. Gott, ‘Courbet’, artist’s file, National Gallery of Victoria. There remains to this day something about these paintings that disrupts what Wagner had described as their easy legibility. Instead of encountering a scene in which the various constituent elements of the picture combine to produce a pleasing spectacle of a marine landscape, we are brought up short against this uncanny wave that seems to have been frozen in mid swell or turned into a solid material completely foreign to the fluidity of water.

Another commentator in 1870 even joked that the water in the series of paintings to which The wave belongs had been rendered as nothing other than pigment itself. The cartoonist Stock , in a caricature focusing on the exhibition of Stormy sea, shows a hand holding a knife upon which a wave of pigment appears to crest (fig. 6). The caption reads: ‘Allow me to offer you a slice of this lightweight painting’.31 Stock, ‘Caricature of the wave’, Stock-Album, Paris, 1870, reprod. in J. Rubin, Courbet, London, c.1995, p. 267. In spite of his dismissive caption, Stock drew attention to the fact that one of the principal features of Courbet’s late work is the material existence of the painting itself. The artist, in an 1861 text in which he proclaimed his independence from academic, idealist precepts of art, argued that ‘painting is an essentially concrete art form and can consist only of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language’.32 Courbet, letter to the young artists of Paris, 25 December 1861, in Chu, Letters, p. 204; Rubin, p. 267–8. It is by virtue of the stubborn materiality of his paint that Courbet’s wave paintings, defying popular expectations about the representation of the ocean and the behaviour of water, became difficult for contemporary critics to read. In this way, they exceeded the facile, one-dimensionality of landscape painting theorised as pleasing antidote to the urban maelstrom by writers such as Champfleury in 1862.

It is difficult, in conclusion, to see The wave as an explicit argument for political equality. However, to the extent that it challenged prevailing, metropolitan models for understanding the natural world in the French countryside, we can argue that it belongs to that series of marine pictures that, according to Herding, ‘corroborate Courbet’s conception of the power of elemental nature to resist the exploitations of civilization’.33 Herding, p. 134. Drawing on the Romantic concept of the sea as an overwhelming natural force and physically intensifying it through his unique painting technique, in this work Courbet challenged the Parisian viewer’s experience of the Normandy seashore as art.

Dr Anthony White is a lecturer, Art History, School of Culture and Communication, the University of Melbourne (in 2007)

Notes

1       Frank Rinder, letter to E. La Touche Armstrong, begun 31 July 1923 and completed  8 August 1923; Frank Rinder Papers, National Gallery of Victoria.

2       J. Castagnary, Exposition des oeuvres de G. Courbet à l’Ecole des beaux-arts, Paris, 1882, p. 26, quoted in T. Gott, ‘Gustave Courbet, The wave’ in 19th Century Painting and Sculpture in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 46.

3       K. Herding, Courbet: To Venture Independence, New Haven, 1991, p. 96.

4       One of the many criticisms of A burial at Ornans, for example, was that it portrayed a ‘long file of ludicrous masks and deformities copied from life’ (quoted in T. J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic 1848–1851, Greenwich, 1973, p. 138).

5       R. Herbert, ‘City vs. country: The rural image in French painting from Millet to Gaugin’, ArtForum vol. 8, no. 6, February 1970, pp. 50–1.

6       Clark, pp. 96–7, 151–2.

7       Linda Nochlin reads the increasing prevalence of landscapes among the artist’s works after 1855 as a turning away from politically engaged art (see L. Nochlin, Gustave Courbet: A Study of Style and Society, New York, 1976, p. 225).

8       Herding, p. 79.

9       ibid., p. 77.

10     ibid., p. 126.

11     ibid., 93, 98.

12     Letter from Jean-Jacques Fernier to Sonia Dean, 1 March 1993, Courbet file, National Gallery of Victoria.

13     Courbet in a letter to his family in 1841 remarked on the unfamiliarity of the sea as an environment after his first trip to Normandy: ‘We finally saw the sea, the horizonless sea – how odd for a valley dweller’, quoted in P. Chu (ed.), Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 38.

14     G. Groom, ‘The sea as metaphor in nineteenth-century France’, in J. Wilson-Bareau &  D. Degener (eds), Manet and the Sea, Philadelphia, p. 40.

15     Courbet, letter to Alfred Bruyas, January 1866; letter to Urbain Cuenot, April 6 1866, in Chu, Letters, pp. 273, 277.

16     For the popularity of Courbet’s seascapes among the art-buying public, see P. Chu, ‘Courbet et la commercialisation de son oeuvre’, in J. Zutter (ed.), Courbet – Artiste et promoteur de son oeuvre, pp. 77–8.

17     Courbet, letter to Juliette Courbet, 11 May 1870, in Chu, Letters, p. 375.

18     Champfleury, ‘Le rôle important des paysagistes à notre epoque’ in Le Courrier artistique, 15 February 1862, quoted in A. Wagner, ‘Courbet’s landscapes and their market’, Art History, vol. 4, no. 4, December 1981, p. 425.

19     Wagner, p. 424.

20     ibid., pp. 426–7.

21     John House makes a similar argument to Wagner from the observation that Courbet’s sea pictures omit all evidence of the thriving tourist industry in the locales he paints. House interprets this as an instance of Courbet feeding the urban market for a mythical illusion of a one-on-one encounter with nature (see J. House ‘Courbet’s lost laundresses’, Art in America, vol. 83, no. 2, February 1995, pp. 80, 87).

22     Groom, p. 38.

23     These remarks about Michelet’s and Zola’s texts are made by Groom (pp. 43–5); see also J. Zarobel, ‘Marine painting in mid-nineteenth-century France’, in Wilson-Bareau & Degener, p. 27.

24     Courbet, letter to Victor Hugo, 28 November 1864, in Chu, Letters, p. 249.

25     Emile Zola, ‘Mon salon’, L’ Evénement, 15 May 1866, quoted in J. House, ‘Courbet and salon politics’, Art in America, vol. 77, no. 5, May 1989, p. 215.

26     Groom, p. 39.

27     P.-J. Proudhon, ‘Du principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale’, in C. Bouglé &  H. Moysset (eds), Oeuvres complètes de P.-J. Proudhon, Paris, 1939, quoted in  L. Nochlin, Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848–1900: Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs, 1966, p. 52.

28     P. de Saint-Victor, ‘Salon de 1870’, La Liberté, 5 June 1870, quoted in M.-A. Tippetts, Les marines des peintres vues par les littérateurs de Diderot aux Goncourts, Paris, 1966, p. 183, translated in Antiques Digest online at .

29     T. de Banville, ‘Salon de 1870’, Le national, 7 May 1870, reprinted in Critique litteraire, artistique et musical choisie, Paris, 2003, p. 332.

30     See ‘Felton Bequest purchases: disappointing additions’, The Argus, 23 January 1924, p. 15, in T. Gott, ‘Courbet’, artist’s file, National Gallery of Victoria.

31     Stock, ‘Caricature of the wave’, Stock-Album, Paris, 1870, reprod. in J. Rubin, Courbet, London, c.1995, p. 267.

32     Courbet, letter to the young artists of Paris, 25 December 1861, in Chu, Letters, p. 204; Rubin, p. 267–8.

33     Herding, p. 134.