In the late summer of 1869, Courbet traveled to Etretat, a fishing village turned beach resort, which was famous for its towering coastal cliffs with their portal rock formations carved out by the relentless sea. The artist had recently finished a painting season at Trouville, where he worked alongside Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin and Charles Daubigny. In Trouville, Courbet painted a series of seascapes with calm water and muted tones but in Etretat, Courbet had the opportunity to paint the pounding, vicious surf that spoke to his soul.
'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,' Courbet wrote to Victor Hugo in 1864 (P. ten-Doesschat Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 249, No. 64-18.)
Courbet was completely absorbed by the sea during his stay at Etretat. He had rented a house immediately on the water, and worked furiously during his time there. His interaction with his subject matter was intensely personal and visceral. This was not subject matter for a paintbrush alone, and Courbet builds up the pigment of the crashing surf with a palette knife, capturing the violence of the foam-tipped waves. After a visit to the artist, the writer Guy de Maupassant wrote: 'In a huge, empty room, a fat, dirty, greasy man was slapping color onto a blank canvas with a kitchen knife. From time to time, he would press his face against the window and look out at the storm. The sea would be so close that it would beat the house and completely envelop it in foam and its roar. Salt water would beat against the window frames like hail and rattle the walls. On the fireplace mantle, a bottle of cider is placed next a half-full glass. From time to time, Courbet would take a few sips, and then returns to his work.' (Guy de Maupassant, 'La vie d'un paysagiste' in Gil Blas, 28 Septembre 1886.)
Twenty-nine canvases were the result of Courbet's sojourn in Etretat, and two of these were exhibited at the Salon of 1870 and were received with great acclaim. Sarah Faunce has dated the present work to 1869 - 70 and has indicated that it was perhaps painted in the artist's studio upon his return from his sojourn in Etretat.
Courbet dubbed these canvases his paysages de mer. Contrary to the Romantics, who came before him, the unfettered ocean did not hold symbolic meaning to Courbet. Unlike artists who came before him who always explored the sea in its relation to humankind, Courbet eliminated any sign of human existence in La vague. His marines are simply the representation of a natural phenomenon, captured in all its fury and splendor. As Zola remarked of one of Courbet's wave paintings: 'Do not expect a symbolic work in the manner of Cabanel or Baudry - some nude woman, with skin as pearly as a shell, who bathes in a sea of agate. Courbet has simply painted a wave.' (Emile Zola, 'L'Ecole française de peinture a l'Exposition de 1878,' Emile Zola, Salons, ed. Hemmings and Niess, Geneva, 1959, p. 201).
This work has been examined and authenticated by Sarah Faunce and will be included in her forthcoming Courbet catalogue raisonné.
This work has also been authenticated by Jean-Jacques Fernier and will be included in his forthcoming Courbet catalogue raisonné.