Courbet the Wave

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Beginning in the summer of 1869 Gustave Courbet produced a series of paintings depicting stormy seas during his stay at Etretat on the Normandy coast. The Wave (La Vague c.1872) exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria is one such painting that features the central motif of a cresting wave. While many viewed the work as a simple realist seascape, the political implication of the work suggested by some of Courbet’s contemporaries is hardly discernable to the modern viewer. It can only be understood in light the historical context of the early 1870s in which France was entering a new democratic order and both Realism and Courbet had become inextricably bound to political affairs. The aggression of the ocean fascinated Courbet; ‘The sea! The sea!... in her fury which growls, she reminds me of the caged monster who can devour me’. This feeling resonates in The Wave as the lack of foreground presents nature as an immediate threat. Drenched in the violent tide, the shore is no safe harbour, indicated by the burnt orange sand in the bottom left of the canvas. The tone of the painting is much like ‘bated breath’, as the imposing wall of water appears to standstill just before the point of breaking. Dark, billowing clouds echo the compositional structure of the wave. Thus the painting exemplifies the coherence of nature through the interdependence of sea and sky and together they make a formidable presence. Remarkable for its lack of human incident, Courbet seems unwilling to define man’s relationship to nature. It is as though his stay at Etretat revealed to him an unequivocal life force that could be observed in the natural world alone. His choice of colour and technique invests ‘the fluid medium of water with weight and solidity’. A deep blue-green offset by a foamy white recreates the ocean’s surging, spitting depth, while his gestural use of a loaded brush produces a tactile surface. Not all critics approved of Courbet’s “unrefined” technique; Maxime du Camp declared, ‘he paints his pictures as you black your boots’. For others like Cézanne, the densely material, fleshy presence of the paint acts as a metaphor for the physical reality of nature. He claimed that before such a work ‘the whole room reeks of sea-spray’. Courbet was a Realist and would pride himself on bringing the sounds, smells and tastes of a small fishing village into the heart of Paris. Realism posed a direct challenge to the dominant trend of Romanticism which flourished in Europe during the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Realists were irreverent to the romantics who were thought to present themselves as visionaries ‘in quest of non-material ideals’. Courbet famously claimed, ‘I cannot paint an angel, because I have never seen one’. Realists rejected the ideal and attempted to give an unromantic sense of the world because ‘art cannot turn away from the more sordid and harsh aspects of human existence’. This desire for truth was therefore often related to exposing the political and social realities of the time. Thus Courbet’s Wave can be read through this notion such that the palpable energy of the sea stands as a metaphor for political freedom. It is as though through the careful observation of nature Courbet has collected the experience of freedom ‘which could be fed back as imagery into society’. Indeed in 1882 critic Jules Castagnary described it as an image of new political order in which ‘Democracy was rising like a cresting wave’. A political reading of Courbet’s Waves is perplexing, especially for modern audiences for which The Wave is just a wave. Such was the opinion of Emile Zola, an advocate of naturalism, who praised Courbet for his unaffected depiction of nature; ‘Do not expect a symbolic work in the manner of Cananel or Baudry… Courbet has simply painted a wave’. This represented an approval of artists who resisted pressures to afford their work with some hackneyed symbolic significance. Yet others felt The Wave was charged...
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