Just as Kleist once described the Monk by the Sea, so too Cézanne described Courbet’s Wave with an equal degree of understanding: “... the one in Berlin is wonderful, one of the wonders of this century, with much greater movement, much more tension, a more poisonous green and a dirtier orange than the one here [Musée du Louvre, Paris], with the foamy surf of the tide, which comes up from out of the depths of eternity, its ragged sky and its pallid precision. It is as though it were coming right at one, it makes one jump back in shock. The whole room is filled with the smell of the foam.” In 1869 in Etretat, in a studio right by the sea, Courbet had studied breakers. He attempted to recapture their violence and monstrous power by means of radical pictorial methods. Contemporary critics also read a political message into his wave paintings of 1869–70, seeing them as republican agitation and as illustrations of the power of the people. Romanticism had already taught viewers to understand simple portrayals of nature on a symbolic level. Here the single wave is like a small section of eternity, with the plunging water as a transient moment of permanence. The layered paint, applied with a spatula and smoothed out with a palette knife, gives the portrayal of the moving mass a kind of wall-like strength, and it was this same combination of transience and permanence that the poet Baudelaire had already identified in Courbet’s
earlier work.


  • Title: The Wave
  • Creator: Gustave Courbet
  • Date Created: 1869/1870
  • Physical Dimensions: w144.0 x h112.0 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • original title: La vague
  • Technique and material: Oil on canvas
  • Inv.-No.: A I 967
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-815114
  • External link: Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Prestel Verlag / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: © b p k - Photo Agency / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders
  • Collection: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Artist biography: Gustave Courbet was a French painter and led the realist movement in French painting in the 19th century. At the age of 20 he went to Paris, and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. He soon began to forge his own style by studying Spanish, Flemish and French artists and painting copies of their work. In the early 1840s he created several self-portraits, in which he slipped into different roles. Journeys to Belgium and the Netherlands in 1846/47 served to strengthen his philosophy on art: artists should portray life around them, like Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters had done. He exhibited After Dinner at Ornans at the Salon of 1849 which gained him a high reputation. He soon became a celebrity, often declared as a genius. He acquired the status of a hero for the French avant-garde and became an important influence on the younger generation, most importantly for such figures as Manet. In 1870 he established a ‘Federation of Artists’ for the free and uncensored expansion of art. In 1871 he was sentenced to prison for his insistence during the Paris Commune on executing the communal decree for the destruction of the Vendôme Column, which he saw as a symbol of aggressive imperialism. One of Courbet’s most important artworks is 'A Burial at Ornans' (1849–1850). He had a profound influence on such diverse artists as Claude Monet and Edward Hopper.
  • Artist Place of Death: La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland
  • Artist Place of Birth: Ornans near Besançon, France
  • Artist Dates: 1819-06-10/1877-12-31

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