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 Cezanne, 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 with political meaning. Of course, understanding Castagnary’s interpretation means understanding the artist and the epoch in which the work was painted. The political landscape of nineteenth century France was in a constant state of flux. From Republic, to Empire, to Constitutional Monarchy– all were political ‘experiments’ in quest of good government. It would change again in 1870 as the empire fell to pieces. Napoleon III was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and opportunity for a new political order arose.
Although the country was torn between conservatives, liberals and hostile extremists, democratic republicanism emerged as the dominant force out of the post-war confusion. Already by the late 1860s (the time The Wave was produced) popular discourses amongst ‘democratising elites’ stressed ‘the importance of mass participation in civic life’. French thinking returned to consolidate ideas of the 1948 Revolution in which the Communist Manifesto (1948) urged working classes to rise up and demand political representation.
As a civil war for power ensued ordinary men and women could no longer ignore the workings of the state which threatened to lapse into oppression. Thus, a century of political instability finally culminated in the ascension of the Third Republic which would last for seventy years. The rise of democratic sentiment correlated with the rise of the Realist movement. In the words of George Boas, ‘any artistic movement spreads beyond the limits of a particular art to the various non-artistic activities which characterize an epoch’.
Nineteenth century France was characterised by political unrest, constantly teetering between democracy and despotism. Artists, whose works were subject to censorship and who kept the company of critics, politicians, philosophers, writers and educators, were sensitive to the political climate of the time, so that politics became a ‘second conscience’ in artistic matters. Such was the case for Realists whose work ‘came to be associated with democratic utopianism’.
Realism was a democratic force on two fronts; firstly, in its ability to subvert the dictators of the Salon and secondly, through its subjects – most notably, the poor and destitute. ‘Snubbed by royal purchasers, belittled by… powerful critics, prevented by an ultra-conservative jury from showing their work in the salon’, realists had to overcome an establishment in which classicism and romanticism were the accepted forms. These schools believed art to be an autonomous force, independent of social and political realities. For realists, contemporary history and art were inextricable.
Thus social and political issues – the working conditions of the poor, the voracious luxuries of those who ignored them and subsequent revolutionary sentiment – were worthy and inescapable subjects. The Wave therefore is caught up in this association of Realism with subversive political commentaries, such that viewers identified natural incident with social relations- a communion between the surging life force of the sea and rising democratic sentiment. Courbet contributed to (and is largely responsible for) this association.
As an avid socialist, he took to politics ‘in the same uninhibited manner in which he took to food and beer’. He was a political and artistic agitator- he asserted his ‘aesthetic of ugliness’ to stubbornly defy romantic conventions, just as he sensationally rejected the Legion of Honour award in 1870 stating he could not ‘accept a distinction which essentially belongs to the monarchical order’. Such dissent, particularly towards the end of the Second Empire, was not unusual for Courbet. In 1871 he was on the side of the Commune- a party of radical socialists or ‘the Reds’- which called for he demolition of the Vendome Column- that symbol of ‘Napoleonic imperialism’. So overt were his political views that most critics ‘found it difficult to separate his work from his personality’. Similarly, contemporary viewers were likely to make political associations in his works, even when faced with an ordinary if not evocative wave. Courbet’s previous works, his major Salon paintings of the 1850s, also provide precedent for a political reading. His painting An Afterdinner at Ornans (1849), disguised as a rather innocuous scene of rural life, depicts political agitators exchanging news at a clandestine gathering.
The Stonebreakers (1849) and The Corn Sifters (1855) demoralised depictions of peasant life by painting how the poor ‘from cradle to grave, must fight for their miserly existence’. These works directly challenged typical representations of lower class conditions in which backbreaking labour and poverty were romanticised through images of peasants as an industrious, simple and jovial people, demonstrated in works such as Leopold Robert’s Arrival of the Harvesters (1830) and Jules Breton’s The Gleaners (1854).
Courbet thus constructed himself as a man of the people who ‘disturbed the tranquillity…of those who lick their fingers over paintings’. It is this pattern of subversive defiance that appropriates a political reading of his seascapes, in which the cresting wave reflects the mood of a people on the brink of a democratic revolution. Writer Emile Bouvier called this Courbet’s doctrine: that ‘one can only paint what one has seen- contemporary history’.
Courbet painted The Wave during a time of immense political change in which hopes for a new democratic regime were disseminating in full force. Castagnary’s interpretation of The Wave indicates that, after years of undermining the autocratic systems in both the political and artistic realms, Courbet’s paintings- even his seemingly innocuous seascapes- were immediately politicized.
Such was Courbet’s political character that in Jules Valles’ obituary for the artist, Castagnary’s metaphor is taken a step further when nature itself is politicized: He crossed the great streams; he plunged into the ocean of the crowds; he heard the heart of a people beat like the thuds of a cannon; he ended up in the heart of nature, in the midst of trees, breathing the scents which had intoxicated him in his youth, beneath a sky unstained by the fumes of great massacres, but which tonight, perhaps, set ablaze by the setting sun, will spread itself out on the house f the dead man like a great red flag. Bibliography Berger, 1943. Klaus Berger, ‘Courbet in his Century’, Courbet in perspective, The Artists in Perspective Series, ed. P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, c1977, pp. 34-41. Boas, 1967. George Boas, ‘Courbet and His Critics’, Courbet in perspective, The Artists in Perspective Series, ed. P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, c1977, pp. 42-52. Bouvier, 1913. Emile Bouvier, ‘Method and Doctrine’, Courbet in perspective, The Artists in Perspective Series, ed. P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Englewood Cliffs, N.
J. : Prentice-Hall, c1977, pp. 29-33. Clark, 1969. Timothy J. Clark, ‘A Bourgeois Dance of Death’, Courbet in perspective, The Artists in Perspective Series, ed. P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, c1977, pp. 88-108. Faunce, 1988. Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin, Courbet Reconsidered, Brooklyn Museum; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. Guizot, 1849. Francois M. Guizot, Democracy in France, New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1849. Herding, c1991. Klaus Herding, Courbet: to venture independence, New Haven: Yale University Press, c1991.
Heywood, 2004. Colin Heywood, ‘Learning Democracy in France: Popular Politics in Troyes, c. 1830-1900’, The Historical Journal, 47, no. 4, 2004, pp. 921-939 Larkin, 1939. Oliver Larkin, ‘Courbet and His Contemporaries, 1848-1867’, Science & Society, Guilford Press, 3, no. 1, 1939, pp. 42-63 Morris, 2003. Pam Morris, Realism, London: Routledge, 2003. Nochlin, 1982. Linda Nochlin, ‘The De-Politicization of Gustave Courbet: Transformation and Rehabilitation under the ThirdRepublic’, October, The MIT Press, 22, 1982, pp. 64-78 NVG School Resources: NVG School Recourses.
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