The wave, 1869

Is this painting timeless? It would seem so. We see only clouds and sea, no trace of human life and nothing that would allow us to draw conclusions about the epoch. For contemporary viewers, it was nevertheless a "painting of its time". Why? Courbet painted it in 1869 in a little fishing village in Normandy, where he had a studio right on the rugged coast. He was so fascinated by the motif that he executed some sixty such surf paintings within just a few years, many of them amazingly similar.

The version you see here is among the works that allow us to sense with particular poignancy how Courbet struggled against the remoteness of traditional painting from reality. He refused to euphemize the sea as a peaceful or tranquil idyll. The section of sea seems more randomly chosen than classically composed; the application of the paint is coarse. We are afforded the sight of a thundering, threateningly massive wave. It agitated many of the painter’s contemporaries to view the sea in so uncontrollable a state. They sensed that there was perhaps more to the painting than met the eye, for it violated an entire order. Even if it is no longer apparent to us today, official Parisian art criticism literally read Courbet’s wave as an appeal to rise up against Napoleon III.


Oil on canvas
63 × 91.5 cm
Inv. No. 1433
Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.

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