By the end of the 1860s, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) had matured from being an enfant terrible, becoming a darling of the liberals. As an act of appeasement, the Emperor Napoleon III nominated Courbet to the Legion of Honour, but the artist stood fast and refused. His popularity grew.
As tensions rose, Courbet returned to the coast to paint the sea, its waves, the sky, and distant horizon.
Among the earliest in this extraordinary series of paintings is The Wave from 1869, which concentrates on the familiar and distinctive form of a wave breaking on a rocky beach.
Some views were from further up the beach, such as The Calm Sea from the same year. His horizon is very low, as was traditional among the landscape painters of the Netherlands, giving him free rein in its sky.
As the French nation slid inexorably into crisis, the weather in Courbet’s marine paintings deteriorated. In The Wave from 1869-70, the clouds look threatening and there are white caps on the waves as evidence of the strengthening wind.
Then, in 1870, the year that he refused the Emperor’s nomination and in which France declared war on Prussia, Courbet’s storm arrived in The Waterspout.
He also continued to develop the motif of a single breaking wave, here in Waves from about 1870, which is now in Tokyo. This coming weekend I will explore this with its links to Hokusai’s famous woodcut and other marine artists.
Courbet revisited the famous cliffs at Étretat in 1870, where he painted this more tranquil view of The Cliff at Étretat after a Storm, a location and motif which was to be strongly associated with Claude Monet and Impressionism.
That summer, the Franco-Prussian War broke out. As a prominent artist and citizen, Courbet directed correspondence at those involved. Among his missives was an open letter to the Prussian army and artists of Prussia proposing that the French and Prussian cannons be melted down. He put a more serious proposal to the government, that it authorise him to disassemble the Vendôme Column in Paris, which had been erected by Napoleon I to honour his victories, so that it might be moved to a more appropriate place. Inevitably, nothing was done about this at the time.
After the ignominious French defeat in 1871, Courbet played a prominent part in the Paris Commune, organising a federation of artists which drew hundreds to a meeting which he chaired. He was first invited by the Commune to re-open the Louvre and Luxembourg Palace museums, and to organise an independent Salon for that year. That same meeting of the Executive Committee of the Commune also directed that the Vendôme Column should be demolished (not moved). A few days later, Courbet was elected the Delegate of Fine Arts to the Commune, with which he soon fell out.
The Vendôme Column was demolished amid great celebration on 16 May, a few days before “Bloody Week” saw widespread destruction of central Paris, and the final suppression of the Commune on 28 May 1871. Courbet then went into hiding until he was arrested on 7 June. Two months later, at his trial before a military tribunal, he was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 500 Francs. In prison he was allowed to paint, but wasn’t allowed to use models, so painted a series of still lifes.
Soon after release from prison, Courbet travelled to the mountains not far from his home town of Ornans, where he painted a Stream in the Jura Mountains, or The Torrent, in March 1872.
In the summer of that year, he returned to allegory in The Trout, “hooked and bleeding from the gills”, a powerful expression of his personal feelings, I suspect.
He also completed one of the last of his marines, Squall on the Horizon (1872-73), which almost seems prophetic. For the Vendôme Column continued to dog Courbet after his release from prison. The new Republican president decided to rebuild it, with Courbet footing the bill – a cost which would have bankrupted the artist, who fled France for the safety of Switzerland. Courbet took to heavy drinking and stayed in exile for the rest of his life.
Courbet painted some of the finest landscapes of his career during his exile in Switzerland, like this Sunset over Lac Leman from 1874, the year of the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris.
He became particularly obsessed with the island château at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, Chillon Castle, here in 1875.
Chillon Castle from 1874-77 is another of several views which he painted of the castle on the lake.
Sunset on Lake Geneva from about 1876 is reminiscent of his earlier seascapes, but now the water is calm once more.
In May 1877, the French government informed Courbet that the cost of rebuilding the Vendôme Column would be over 300,000 Francs, which he could pay in installments of 10,000 Francs each year, starting on 1 January 1878. Courbet died in Switzerland on 31 December 1877, the day before, at the age of only 58.