This was a prolific and busy time for Courbet. He spent nearly two months in Étretat during the late summer of 1869, and when he returned to Paris he boasted of having painted over twenty seascapes, two of which he submitted to the Salon of 1870. This flurry of activity was most likely prompted by a specific commission to paint marine scenes from the dealers Durand- Ruel or Haro. It is very likely that Deux bateaux sur la plage was painted during this period, either on site, or back in Courbet’s studio. While Robert Fernier dates this picture to 1873, there really is no stylistic evidence for this placement.
The treatment of the shoreline textures is reminiscent of other Étretat “sea landscapes,” with its dry, crumbly brushwork representing the crushed shells and pebbles. The sea itself changes from deep blue to aqua as it recedes toward the horizon line; this cool palette only broken by the agitation of the frothy white waves as they crest and roll to shore. Clusters of pale peach clouds intercept the sea from the blue and white sky above. The mood is atmospheric but specific, suggesting the end of a late summer storm, which leaves the sand cool and damp. The ever-changing weather, and especially the fast-moving storms, was a feature of Courbet’s Étretat paintings; he even chose a storm scene for one of the 1870 Salon entries. Unlike Boudin, who Courbet met at Deauville in 1866 and who populated his seaside scenes with elegant “crinolines,” Courbet never included people in his Étretat paintings; nature alone was Courbet’s subject. It has been suggested that the lack of humanity in these works, and especially Courbet’s interest in showing abandoned boats, as in the present painting, may have signaled his concern that the onslaught of tourism was ruining the fishing industry in the Normandy seaside towns (P. Ten-Doesschate Chu, “It Took Millions of Years to Compose That Picture,” Courbet Reconsidered, exh cat., Brooklyn, 1988, p. 60). Because Courbet came from a farming background, he may have been sympathetic to the plight of the fishermen, who also made their living from a rural tradition.
The first owner of Deux bateaux sur la plage was Courbet’s fellow countryman, Jean Paul Mazaroz, who had amassed a large collection of the artist’s works over his lifetime. Mazaroz was an important furniture maker, but he also wrote books and pamphlets about social injustices such as the fate of workers and universal suffrage.
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