Courbet’s earliest seascape dates to 1841 when he first visited the Normandy coast. The artist approached the subject again in 1854 on a visit to Montpelier on the Mediterranean, but he immersed himself in earnest in the subject of the sea during his later trips to Normandy in 1859, 1860, 1865 and 1866, culminating in the prodigious output of seascapes in 1869. It was on his trips to Deauville and Trouville that Courbet was introduced formally to the genre by Eugène Boudin, the established master of beach and sea scenes, (who Courbet called ‘the king of skies’) and it was also there Courbet met James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. His experiences in Normandy inspired Courbet to launch his seascapes in new directions. The coastal landscapes produced during the 1860s offered the artist not only commercial success but also an opportunity to explore the complexities of land, sea and sky.
Sarah Faunce writes in her analysis of the present painting: ‘The site is immediately recognizable as the Channel coast at Trouville/Deauville, where the shallows at low tide reach unusually far out to sea. Courbet spent several productive working weeks in Trouville in the summer of 1865, painting an impressive number of relatively small studies of the coast, which he called paysages de mer. He returned for a shorter period in 1866 as the guest of the Comte de Choiseul in neighboring Deauville. The much smaller number of seascapes attributable to the second trip also tend to be stormier – presumably because of the weather, but nonetheless showing the artist’s interest in the power of the sea as well as in its contemplative majesty. Here the primary subject is the grandeur of the darkening clouds as the rise and roll with the force of the wind. In contrast to the sky, the empty beach was more thinly painted in strong horizontals that in some areas allowed the artist’s characteristic red-brown ground layer to appear on the surface’ (Written communication, Sarah Faunce, 8 July 2012).
More than half of the composition of the present work is sky – a tour-de-force study of clouds with the effect of a sun close to setting at the close of the day. In the painting of the sky, lit only by the residual light of sunset denoted by the pink-tinged clouds above the horizon line and the crests of the breaking waves, Courbet demonstrates his unique talent of capturing the majestic effects of nature in a palette of greys, lavenders, blues and pinks, creating an impression of the movement of the clouds, and the softness of the atmosphere at the end of day.
The present work is accompanied by a letter of authenticity from Jean-Jacques Fernier dated 22 July 2011 and a letter of authenticity from Sarah Faunce dated 8 July 2012.