The great nineteenth-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. In the middle of the 1860s, he immersed himself, artistically and literally, in the sea to the north along the Channel Coast, not only painting alongside Eugène Boudin, James McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet, but also swimming daily. He became mesmerized by 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 paint surfaces.
Black Rocks at Trouville is an extraordinary example from the marine series, rare in both its expressive palette and its excellent state. The sunset sky is sculpted from a variety of brushes as well as the artist’s famous palette knife, on top of a dark ground that breaks through to the surface. A strip of turquoise marks the horizon, and in the foreground Courbet has carved out several rocks and suggested wet sand with horizontal smears of the knife. The handling is both 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, positioning the genre of landscape as the locus of ambitious avant-garde practice for the next half-century.
This painting, along with the Gallery's Calm Sea (1985.64.10) mark Courbet’s effort as a serial project, a process of working that would be taken up by Claude Monet in the decades following, culminating in the Rouen Cathedral series. 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 together 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."
Black Rocks at Trouville expands the Gallery’s holdings of this most important nineteenth-century master, as well as of our extraordinary group of pictures produced on the Normandy coast–luminous images by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet, and Georges Seurat.
lower left: G. Courbet
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.
- Gustave Courbet. Les années suisses, Musée Rath, Geneva, 2014-2015, no. 54, 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.