Gustave Courbet and the truth of nature

Updated: May 27, 2020

Article in The Ottawa Citizen 27 May 1947

Author unknown

The Rocks at Etrat by Gustave Courbet
The Rocks at Etrat by Gustave Courbet

The Rocks at Etrat by Gustave Courbet is a large painting showing the waves of the Atlantic breaking on a beach above which rise the cliffs of this part of the coast of Normandy. Several fishing boats are drawn up in the foreground, and a glimpse of a green meadow is caught on top of the cliffs at the right. In the clarity of all forms, the accuracy of colour and the fluid quality of the paint, the picture represents the style of Courbet at his best.

Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877) occupies an essential place in the art of France, the centre of all artistic movements in the nineteenth century. In this eventful century, painting developed with astonishing rapidity, and changes took place in a few decades which in previous art periods would have taken a century. Thus the calm, dignified classic style of Jacques-Louis David, with its reference to Greek and Roman antiquity, gave way in the early nineteenth century to the unrestrained romantic art of Eugene Delacroix with his richness of colour and movement. Romanticism, in turn, gave way around 1850 to the movement known as realism.

The importance of the realists lay in their very revolt against idealism, classic or romantic because their naturalistic manner was a return to the central tradition of truth to nature that had been the mainspring of European painting since 1400. Still, it also made possible the later discovery by the impressionists of the full brilliance of colour and the light of nature.

Courbet was the principal figure among the realists. Feeling instinctively perhaps that fantasy was out of tune with the age of industrialism and scientific thought, he made a sharp break with the art of the Paris salons as he knew it and thus with the taste of the public at large. In this, he was assisted by his rebellious temperament. After coming to Paris from the little village of Ornans in the Jura mountains, he began to exhibit pictures representing road workers, drab village funerals, descriptive studies of animals and other realistic subjects, to a public which had come to savour a mood of high romance in their art.

Rejections from the salon only confirmed him in his rebelliousness. When in 1870 his work was at last beginning to be recognised, and he was offered the medal of the Legion of Honour, he refused it in a very rude manner. At this time he launched a brief career as an anarchist, another way of venting his wrath, and finally retired to Switzerland where he died.

Courbet's innovations in technique, as well as a realistic vision, made him influential in the evolution of modern painting. He was one of the first to apply his colours with a palette knife, to achieve a richer surface texture on the canvas, a more intense effect of colour, and a greater massiveness in the natural forms. These characteristics may be observed in the "Rocks at Etretat", painted in 1866. Here his broader method of painting makes the sea a compelling, liquid and surging one in contrast to the sturdy rocks and the smooth grass on the shore.

Check out Gustave exhibition on Pinterest.