Courbet traveled to Etretat in early August 1869 staying at a house belonging to a relative of Guy de Maupassant. Upon returning to Paris in late September, Courbet wrote to his loyal friend and supporter, the art critic, Jules Castagnary, "Did I earn my bread and butter in Etretat! I painted twenty seascapes, two of which are for the Exhibition" (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 354, no. 69-9). The two works Courbet refered to were La mer orageuse (Fernier, no. 747) and Falaise d'Etretat aprs l'orage (Fernier, no. 745), his two critically acclaimed entries to the 1870 Salon. The present painting most likely belongs to this 1869 series of waves--gentle and undulating as they roll out to sea, or violently crashing along the shoreline under a stormy sky. Also during his stay at Etretat, Courbet focused on the power and majesty of the magnificent cliff, the Porte d'Aval, a dramatic location which, like the waves, provided him with a subject for a series of paintings (see lot 15).
The idea of painting the force of a single wave was a theme that had been depicted earlier by such artists as Whistler, Monet and Victor Hugo. In fact, Courbet wrote to Victor Hugo in 1864 expounding on the diverse personalities of the ocean: "The sea! the sea with its charms saddens me. In its joyful moods, it makes me think of a 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" (ibid., p. 249, no. 64-18).
Japanese prints have also been suggested as a source for Courbet's wave paintings. There was widespread interest in Japonisme in the artistic circles of Paris at this time and Courbet certainly would have been aware of images such as The Wave from Hokusai's 1835 album, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The wave in the present painting and the Hokusai print each focus on the impact of a single swelling wave that has gained force, power and height from the sea as it moves toward the shoreline. On the other hand, Courbet's interpretation has nothing to do with the images of the sea by established, conventional artists as discussed by Emile Zola in a Salon review: "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" (E. Zola, "L'Ecole Franaise de Peinture l'Exposition de 1878," Emile Zola, Salons, eds. F.W.J. Hemmings and R.J. Niess, Geneva, 1959, p. 201). In the present painting, Courbet has perfectly captured the power and motion of a swelling wave and the agitation of sea water as it splashes on the shore. The sea is choppy and filled with whitecaps visible as far off as the horizon. This painting reveals Courbet's masterful command of the painted surface, where he has brilliantly evoked the deep blue-green of a wave as it metamorphosizes into frothy white foam. He has imitated the look of the sea through a virtuoso handling of thick, overlapping layers of paint, most likely applied with his trademark palette knife.
Paul Czanne understood the essence of Courbet's waves when he wrote, "...a tangle of flying spray, a tide drawn from the depths of eternity, a ragged sky, the livid sharpness of the whole scene. It seems to hit you full in the chest, you stagger back, the whole room reeks of sea spray" (quoted in A. Ferminger, Courbet, Geneva, 1971, pp. 112-114).