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 horizonless 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' (fig. 1). 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.
Marine de Saint-Aubin is a splendid example of the extraordinarily beautiful and delicate coloristic effects which are the hallmarks of Courbet's paysages de mer. The painting is contemplative in mood, and one can almost hear the soft, repetitive lapping of the waves on the smooth, flat beach. The color harmonies are subtle and subdued, with the soft greys of the overcast sky enveloping the entire scene in a silvery light, brightened only by a pale pink glow on the horizon line.
Courbet is the master of defining distance through color harmonies, and this is one of his finest examples. The foreground is defined by the sandy beach, the middle ground anchored by the rocks and tree-covered outcropping, with the distance punctuated by two tiny sailboats illuminated by the pink glow of the setting sun behind the grey clouds. The sky takes up more than half of the picture plane, and taking his key from that line of pink just above the horizon, Courbet modulates his palette through soft pink, blues, greys, sand tones and green, 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 colors 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).
Courbet's exploration of more or less the same empty view of sea and sky in different conditions of light and atmosphere suggest a serial approach to the motif that was later taken up by Monet.
This work has been examined and authenticated by Sarah Faunce and will be included in the forthcoming critical catalogue of Courbet's paintings.
(fig 1.) Gustave Courbet, The Seaside at Palavas, 1854, Montpellier, Musée Fabre, Photo Courtesy: Musée Fabre.