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Property from a Distinguished American Collection

Étretat-La Porte d'Aval

Étretat-La Porte d'Aval
signed and dated 'G. Courbet 69' (lower right)
oil on canvas
19 ¾ x 24 in. (50 x 60 cm.)
with Galerie Alfred Daber, Paris, by 1954.
Anonymous sale; Hôtel Rameau, Versailles, 2 June 1982, lot 38.
Peter Nathan (1925-2001) and Barbara Nathan-Neher (1926-2001), Zürich, by summer 1983.
with Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner, 2002.
Paris, Galerie Alfred Daber, Pour mon plaisir: tableaux, aquarelles, dessins d'Ingres à Vuillard, 6-29 May 1954, no. 10.
Ornans, Musée Gustave Courbet, Gustave, Eugène, Claude et les autres, en vacances sur la côte normande dans les années 60, summer 1983, no. 24, illustrated.
Tokyo, Murauchi Art Museum, The Courbet Exhibition: A Painter With A Hunter's Eye, 1 November-24 December 2002; also Osaka, Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, 10 January-16 February 2003; Nagoya, Matsuzakaya Art Museum, 22 February-11 March 2003; and Hiroshima, Hiroshima Museum of Art, 21 March-11 May 2003, pp. 107, 135, no. 4B-08, illustrated.
New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Gustave Courbet, 28 October-29 November 2003, no. 62, illustrated.

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Lot Essay

The sea was always a source of great inspiration for Courbet. On his first visit to Le Havre in 1841, he wrote to his parents of the expansiveness of spirit that the experience evoked in him: 'I am delighted with this trip, which has quite developed my ideas about different things I need for my art. We finally saw the sea - the horizonless sea; how odd it is for a valley dweller. We saw the beautiful boats that sail upon it. It is too inviting, one feels carried away; one would leave to see the whole world' (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 38, no. 41-2). Throughout his long career, the sea would hold a special fascination for the artist, and these paysages de mer, as he referred to them, remain among the most sought-after of Courbet's images.
Courbet left Paris for Étretat in early August 1869, and returned at the end of September having painted more than twenty seascapes, two of which he chose to exhibit at the Salon the following year (fig. 1). ‘We are very comfortable in Étretat,’ he wrote to his family in September, ‘It is a charming little resort place. There are rocks here that are bigger than in Ornans, quite curious’ (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 352, no. 69-7). These views of Étretat differed greatly from the marine scenes that Courbet painted during his visits to Trouville and Deauville further south on the Normandy coast in 1865. In those earlier works, the sea and beach mainly serve as the backdrop for his portrait paintings, whereas in these later paintings the sea, waves, and craggy coastline become subjects unto themselves. Courbet worked almost non-stop during his time at Étretat, and the result was numerous paintings depicting either waves crashing on the shore or the imposing chalk cliffs viewed from different angles. In fact, Courbet exhibited one example each of these two subjects in the Salon of 1870.
Either by specific request from his Paris dealers or because of his own personal taste, Courbet chose not to include people in any of the paintings from Étretat in 1869. It has been suggested that the lack of staffage in these works, and particularly Courbet's emphasis on including abandoned boats along the coast, may have signaled his concern that the onslaught of tourism was ruining the fishing industry in coastal towns such as Dieppe and Étretat (S. Faunce and L. Nochlin, Courbet Reconsidered, exh. cat., Brooklyn, 1988, p. 60). The extension of the railway line from Paris via Le Havre had first brought visitors to the tiny fishing village in the 1850s. Soon after, writers and artists followed, drawn by its picturesque half-mile of beach and striking rock formations. Camille Corot (fig. 2), Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet (fig. 3), among others, all spent time painting at Étretat, but no one captured the crumbling high cliff faces and cold Channel water more compellingly than Courbet. Monet himself in taking up the subject said, ‘I plan to do a large canvas of the cliff at Étretat, even if it is terribly audacious on my part to do that after Courbet did it so admirably, but I will try to do it differently’ (1 February 1883).
The present work depicts a view of one of the cliffs at Étretat called the Porte d'Aval, and shows the imposing natural arch from a closer, less oblique angle than Courbet's 1870 Salon entry of the same subject. Courbet also made two other versions of this same view. It seems likely that the rocky terrain of the Normandy coast appealed to Courbet in much the same way as the landscape of his native Ornans, a region also characterized by its imposing rock formations. Courbet’s rugged method of paint application—using a palette knife as often as a brush—was ideally suited to the capturing the rough surfaces of the stones with their crags, crevices and striations, and enabled him to emulate the weather-worn aspect of stone eroded by the forces of nature over the course of many years. The texture of the cliffs is further emphasized by the dramatic lighting, with the dawning sun’s rays reaching just over the crest of the hill to light only the uppermost parts of the cliff face. The pinks of the dawn sky and calm sea further define the sense of a peaceful morning which permeates of the painting. Three empty boats rest on the sand just in front of a darker area of water not yet warmed by the sun. Courbet's scenes of Étretat represent the majesty and power of nature, and are the forerunners of Monet's paintings of the same subject completed over ten years later.
The authenticity of the present work was confirmed by Jean-Jacques Fernier on 6 January 1982.

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