The great 19th-century French master, Gustave Courbet—author of Burial at Ornans, Studio of the Artist, and Woman with a Parrot—was above all a painter of landscapes. Born in the landlocked region of the Doubs in the eastern part of France abutting the Swiss Alps, Courbet is best known for his paintings of the rocky outcroppings, steep canyons, and flowing rivers of this dramatic topography. Yet in the mid-1860s he immersed himself, literally and artistically, in the sea along the Channel Coast to the north, not only swimming daily but also painting alongside Eugène Boudin, James McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet. He became mesmerized with the beaches of Normandy, their mercurial coastal conditions of weather and light, and he completed an inspired series of marine paintings, stark in their reduced compositions and unique in their exuberant surfaces.
Black Rocks at Trouville, with its expressive range and quality of color, is an extraordinary example from the marine series. The sunset sky is sculpted by a variety of brushes as well as by his famous palette knife, atop a dark ground that breaks through to the surface. A strip of turquoise marks the horizon, and several rocks and a swath of wet sand shaped by smears of the knife define the foreground. The artist's handling is experienced and experimental. Courbet's relationship to his motifs and his employment of color and facture deeply impressed the young generation of artists who would become known as the impressionists and positioned the genre of landscape as the site for ambitious avant-garde practice for the next half-century.
This painting and the Gallery's Calm Sea confirm Courbet's effort as a serial project, a working process that would be taken up by Monet and others. These two paintings consist of the same strikingly simple compositions—sand, sea, sky—but are discrete in atmosphere and tone. Courbet exhibited groups of these pictures at an exhibition in Paris in 1865 and again at his private pavilion during the Paris World's Fair in 1867, calling them "paysages de mer" or "sea landscapes."
lower left: G. Courbet
Marks and Labels
Mary Cassatt [1844-1926], Philadelphia and Paris. Acquired 1943 by (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., London); sold 1950 to a private collection, Buenos Aires. (Artemis Fine Art, London), in 1985. Private collection, Boston. (Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York). Private collection, New York, by 1998; sold 31 May 2011 through (Coleman Bancroft LLC, New York) to NGA.
- Gustave Courbet [1819-1877]: Later Paintings, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York; Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York, 1998, no. 19, repro.
- Gustave Courbet, Salander O'Reilly Galleries, New York, 2003, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Trescott, Jacqueline. "Experiencing the French Masters Anew: National Gallery Prepares Re-Imagined Presentation." Washington Post (October 2, 2011): Q-12, color repro.
- Kennicott, Philip. "French Rooms Reopen, With Different Accents." Washington Post 135, no. 55 (January 29, 2012): E25.