(possibly) M. Allende
(possibly) Paul Cassirer, 27 October 1927 (acquired from the above as Felsen von Etretat)
Christian Otto Zieseniss (acquired prior to 1929)
The sea was a privileged subject in Courbet’s oeuvre; he wrote to his parents on an early trip to Normandy in 1841: “We have finally seen the sea… the horizonless sea – how odd it is for a mountain dweller” (Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, letter 41-42, Chicago, 1992, p. 40). Among the first paintings to establish the artist’s relationship to water was The Sea at Palavas (1854, Musée Fabre, Montpellier), a well-known canvas from the collection of the artist’s friend and patron, Alfred Bruyas, presenting a diminutive figure greeting an infinite sea. As in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, the image is a Romantic view of man in nature, a short-lived convention in Courbet’s seascapes as he removes the element of humanity almost entirely from later marine works. Courbet returned to the Normandy coast in 1865 and enjoyed a prolific stay and many of the seascapes that he painted were exhibited in at the Rond-point de l’Alma in 1867, establishing his reputation as a master of the genre. Partly because of this exhibition, these paintings became very lucrative for Courbet and he returned to the area in the following years to complete a number of commissions. The works from this period are varied in their depictions of the sea, from calm low tides as in the present work to the rough seas of his iconic wave paintings.
When Courbet returned to the Normandy coast for his last visit in 1869, he produced more than twenty-nine seascapes. The bold angularity and intelligent contrast of light and dark make the present work a notably ambitious composition among the low-tide paintings. Many were later finished in his Paris studio, or else he went on to complete variants of existing compositions, and Étretat: Les Falaises is likely one of these, being from 1870. That same year, Courbet contributed two works to the Paris Salon that would bring him enormous acclaim, The Stormy Sea (also called The Wave) and The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm, both of which are in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay. During this visit, he wrote to his family in September: “We are very comfortable in Étretat… It is a charming little resort place. There are rocks here that are bigger than Ornans, quite curious” (ten-Doesschate Chu, p. 352).
Courbet produced three virtually identical compositions of Étretat: Les Falaises (also see Fernier, no. 593 and no. 13 in the Supplement). It was not unusual for Courbet to make replicas of existing paintings, as demonstrated by the several known versions of his 1866 Portrait of Jo, La Belle Irlandaise. The reasons for multiple or duplicate versions of his paintings resulted from strong market demand, and Courbet's willingness to satisfy this demand. It is not surprising that Étretat: Les Falaises was a winning formula for Courbet, where the modern arrangement of forms borders on an abstraction of the landscape itself. In the foreground, a scrawl of chromatic blacks, greys and whites presents the first diagonal of rocky shoreline where Courbet has pitched his easel. The receding water exposes a band of cool green algae, followed by deep shadow, the red clay of the sea bed, and then the brilliant sea itself, shaded at the horizon by a passing cloud. The hot sun-struck cliffs of the opposite shore are brilliantly framed at right by a high face of craggy rock that extends beyond the top of the composition, with light reflecting off the highest reaches. With the play of light and shadow, Courbet has ingeniously coaxed the viewer to imagine the entire panorama that surrounds, the elongated shadows suggesting the rock face behind him, with pebbles underfoot and misty clouds above. The rough surfaces of the cliffs provided Courbet with the opportunity to work pigments with a palette knife, sculpting the paint itself to emulate the rough surfaced rock face. In describing his treatment of the rocky cliffs of Jura, Courbet taunts: “try a brush to do rocks like that, rocks that have been eroded by the weather and the rain, which have formed long seams from top and bottom” (Pierre Courthion, Courbet raconté par lui-même et par ses amis, Geneva, 1948, p. 200).
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