During his last visit in 1869, he produced more than twenty-nine seascapes, of which the present work is surely one. Many were later finished in his Paris studio or else he went on to complete variants of existing compositions (see Étretat: Les Falaises, 1870, sold in these rooms for a record price of $3,749,000, November 6, 2013, lot 40). 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” (Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, London, 1992, p. 352). 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.
The dramatic cliffs of Étretat have inspired artists for centuries; Eugène Delacroix, Claude Monet, and Eugène Boudin among them. Each of these artists brought a unique perspective to the convergence of earth and sea and sky, but it was Gustave Courbet’s rigorous pictorial interpretations that would inspire the visits of countless later artists. When Monet visited the region with plans to create a series of seascapes in 1883, the year following Courbet’s École des Beaux-Arts retrospective featuring a number of his Étretat compositions, he wrote: “I reckon on doing a big canvas on the cliff of Étretat, although it’s terribly audacious of me to do that after Courbet who did it so well, but I’ll try to do it differently” (as quoted in John House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 23). Monet’s Cliffs at Etretat (1885, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Instiute, fig. 1), clearly shows his Impressionist departure from Courbet’s treatment of the same subject, whose carefully observed color palette and idiosyncratic, expert mark-making stands in sharp contrast. Courbet does not shy away from using his palette knife to render the sparkling sea and craggy cliff face; a grassy sun-struck plateau atop the cliff is smoothly brushed; a jumble of gravel in the foreground is ingeniously stippled; a whole arsenal of painterly techniques has been deployed in this composition, which stands as a testament to Courbet’s painterly nerve.
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