Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Bords de la Mer, Palavas

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Bords de la Mer, Palavas
signed 'G. Courbet' (lower left)
oil on canvas
19 ¼ x 25 ½ in. (48.5 x 65 cm.)
with Arthur Tooth & Sons, London.
Mr. Peto, Isle of Wight (by 1947).
Ruth Carter Stevenson (daughter of Amon Carter and founder and chairman of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; acquired in 1977).
Sold by a member of the immediate family of the above through Pilsbury Peters Fine Art, Dallas.
Property of a Private American Collector; Sotheby’s, London, 3 June 2003, lot 139.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Illustrated London News, 3 June 1939, p. 978 (illustrated).
R. Fernier, La vie et l’oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: Catalogue raisonné, Lausanne and Paris, 1977, pp. 94-5, no. 153 (illustrated).
P. Courthion, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Courbet, Paris, 1987, pp. 80-1, no. 148 (illustrated).
Montréal, W. Scott and Son, De Delacroix à Dufy, 1938, no. 6
New York, Bignou Gallery, Peinture française de XIX Siècle, 1939.
London, Arts Council of Great Britain, French paintings from Mr. Peto’s Collection, 1947.
London, The Royal Academy, Landscape in French Art 1550-1900, 10 December 1949- 5 March 1950.
London, Arts Council of Great Britain, French paintings from Mr. Peto’s Collection, 1951-52, no. 8.
London, Marlborough Gallery, 1953, no. 9.
Plymouth, City Art Gallery, French impressionists from Mr. Peto’s Collection, 1960, no. 20.
Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, on extended loan from the previous owner (Ruth Carter Stevenson), 1979-82.

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Clare Keiller
Clare Keiller

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Lot Essay

Courbet had first seen the ocean when he visited Le Havre in 1841 and he wrote to his parents of the expansiveness of spirit that the experience evoked in him: 'We have at last seen the horizon less sea; how strange it is for a valley dweller. You feel as if you are carried away; you want to take and see the whole world'. Throughout his long career, the sea would hold a fascination for the artist, and his paysages de mer as he referred to them, are among the most sought after of the master's images.

In 1854 Courbet travelled to the south of France to stay with his preeminent patron Alfred Bruyas in Montpellier. Bruyas bought many of the artist’s works, as for him, they represented a break from the traditional and an exploration of a radically modern artistic idiom. Courbet stayed with his patron for four months and it was also at this time that he created his masterpiece, The Meeting (FIG 1.), traditionally interpreted as Courbet greeted by Bruyas, his servant Calas, and his dog, while traveling to Montpellier. It was exhibited in Paris at the 1855 Exhibition Universelle, where critics ridiculed it as "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet". Bruyas donated it to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier in 1868.

During his stay in Montpelier Courbet explored new themes and subjects. A significant new introduction in the artist's oeuvre was the readdressing of a singular motif, thus forming a ‘series’. This serial approach to the motif was later taken up by Monet. The present lot is one of a series of five paintings that the artist painted in 1854 on the Mediterranean coast and depicts the sea and beach at Palavas, fourteen kilometres south of Montpellier.

The most well known of the series is Le bord de la mer a Palavas (FIG 2.), in the collection of the Musée Fabre. Courbet’s independence and strength comes through in this dramatic painting, a study of flatness and light evocative of an infinite sense of space. Dominated by the line of the horizon that divides the work in half, the heavy paint builds up the surface of the shore and gives depth to the calm sea as it stretches to the distance. Perched on a rocky outcrop the single figure of a man raises his hat, as if in a greeting or celebration of the sea. This figure may be Courbet or perhaps Bruyas, and the peculiar gesture perhaps reflects the excitement of the painter’s own experience of what was for him a novel landscape.

Courbet is the master of defining distance through colour harmonies, and the present lot is one of his finest examples. The foreground is defined by the tide pools, the middle ground anchored by the larger rocks to the right and the light coloured sand punctuated by smaller rocks behind and to the left, with the distance emphasised by the four small sailboats traversing the light blue skirting the horizon. The sky takes up a third of the picture plane, and taking his key from that line of blue just under the horizon, Courbet modulates his palette through soft blues, greys, sand tones and white, applying the paint in portions with a palette knife. His ability to conjure not just an image, but an entire atmosphere through the most minimal of means drew the praise, albeit satirical, from one contemporary caricaturist: 'As God created the sky and earth from nothing, so has M. Courbet drawn his seascapes from nothing or almost nothing: with three colours from his palette, three brushstrokes - as he knows how to do it - there is an infinite sea and sky! Stupendous! Stupendous! Stupendous!' (G. Randon, 'Exposition Courbet,' Le journal amusant, 1867, in Leger 1920, p. 72).

The painting is contemplative in mood. The colour harmonies are subtle and subdued, with the soft greys of the overcast sky enveloping the entire scene in a silvery light, brightened only by the lighter blue of the distant sea on the horizon line.

The authenticity of the present work has been confrmed by Jean-Jacques Fernier and by Sarah Faunce.

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