GUSTAVE LE GRAY
'LA VAGUE BRISÉE, MER MÉDITERANÉE' (THE BREAKING WAVE)
albumen print, the photographer's red facsimile signature stamp (Aubenas 353) on the image, mounted, his blindstamp (Aubenas 358), a label, with title and 'No. 15' in letterpress (Aubenas 368), and numbered 'No. 11,512' in ink (Aubenas 367) on the mount, 1857
16½ by 12¾ in. (41.9 by 32.4 cm.)
Grading this albumen print on a scale of 1 to 10 – a 10 being a print that has rich, deep dark tones and highlights that retain all of their original detail – this print rates a strong 9. It has exceptional detail in the sprays of water, crashing waves, and rocky shoreline.
The print is in generally excellent condition. There is expertly applied retouching, likely original, in the lower half. There are some small impressions across the surface of the print that are only visible in raking light, and very faint soiling in the highlights in the upper half. There is some foxing, faintly visible, in the sky.
The print is mounted on the photographer's preferred mount, made by his friend Ernest Binant (Aubenas 369), whose blindstamp is on the upper right corner of the reverse.The mount is soiled and appropriately age-darkened. There is edge and corner wear as well as a 3/4-inch diagonal tear at the lower edge. There are a few scattered foxmarks.
The reverse is age-darkened at the upper edge and soiled overall. It has scattered foxmarks.
The lot is sold in the condition it is in at the time of sale. The condition report is provided to assist you with assessing the condition of the lot and is for guidance only. Any reference to condition in the condition report for the lot does not amount to a full description of condition. The images of the lot form part of the condition report for the lot provided by Sotheby's. Certain images of the lot provided online may not accurately reflect the actual condition of the lot. In particular, the online images may represent colours and shades which are different to the lot's actual colour and shades. The condition report for the lot may make reference to particular imperfections of the lot but you should note that the lot may have other faults not expressly referred to in the condition report for the lot or shown in the online images of the lot. The condition report may not refer to all faults, restoration, alteration or adaptation because Sotheby's is not a professional conservator or restorer but rather the condition report is a statement of opinion genuinely held by Sotheby's. For that reason, Sotheby's condition report is not an alternative to taking your own professional advice regarding the condition of the lot.
NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING CONDITION OF A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD "AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF SALE INCLUDED IN THE CATALOGUE.
Private collection, Paris
Gérard Lévy and François Lepage, 1997
Eugenia Parry Janis, The Photographs of Gustave Le Gray (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987), p. 71
Ken Jacobson, The Lovely Sea-View: A Study of the Marine Photographs Published by Gustave Le Gray, 1856-1858 (Petches Bridge: 2001), fig. 9
Sylvie Aubenas et al., Gustave Le Gray 1820-1884 (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), fig. 144 and cat. 131
Edward Lucie-Smith, The Invented Eye: Masterpieces of Photography, 1839-1914 (New York, 1975), pl. 36
Manfred Heiting, et al., At the Still Point: Photographs from the Manfred Heiting Collection, Volume I (Los Angeles and Amsterdam, 1995), p. 93
Weston Naef, Photographers of Genius at the Getty (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004), pl. 15
Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet (Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum
In December 1856, Gustave Le Gray first publicly exhibited his revelatory seascapes at the Photographic Society in London (see also Lot 124). Taken from the Normandy shoreline, these wholly new images were greatly admired by the public and caused a sensation in the press. The Norfolk News commented on the exhibition: ‘However painful it may be to our national vanity, we must at once admit that the new picture by [Frenchman] Gustave Le Gray is not only the finest in the room, but the grandest effort that we ever saw in photography’ (quoted in Jacobson, p. 9). Over the next two years, Le Gray completed more than thirty large-format marine studies, including many images, such as this example, that were made near the port of Sète, France, on the Mediterranean coast.
One of his most celebrated works, The Breaking Wave is unique in that it is his only vertical seascape composition. As is often the case with these remarkable photographs made from collodion-on-glass negatives, the sky exhibits less detail so that the shoreline and water can reveal their intricate imagery. The present photograph displays exceptional clarity in the foreground: the craggy rocks reveal brilliant detail and modelling while the frothy swells of water communicate the powerful energy and motion of the sea. The plume of water from the crashing wave remains bright and crisp. In the middle ground, the individual pillars of the Sète pier can be clearly seen. The sailboat at the center of the composition is strong and poised as it tilts into the wind.
Not only did the large format and high level of detail of these albumen prints garner widespread attention, but the subject matter also tapped into a long history of marine imagery. Le Gray’s take on this genre alludes to seventeenth-century Dutch paintings by the likes of Willem van de Velde the Elder, Albert Cuyp, and Jan van Goyen, as well as late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century romantic and sublime canvases by Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Luny, and J. M. W. Turner. In turn, Le Gray’s The Breaking Wave and other marine studies were the first photographic seascapes to garner critical acclaim.
Examples of this image are in the following collections: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (originally in the collection of André Jammes); the Art Institute of Chicago; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the George Eastman Museum, Rochester; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.