Waterfall
Waterfall

Gustave Courbet cannot be blamed for his fascination, or rather, obsession, with oceans, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and seashores.

Just one compassionate look at his birthplace, Ornans by the River Loue, at the extreme eastern edge of France, next to the German border, will convince you without any further hesitation why houses, trees, mountains and skies, as well as human and animal figures with watery backgrounds, would remain Courbet’s fetish throughout his life.

He started painting at a very early age and naturally took his riverside home as the centre of the world; but when, at age 22, in 1841 he visited Normandy at the north-western edge of France, he was stunned by the majesty of the Channel’s panoramas and, henceforth, his creations began taking newer and newer dimensions.

The experience would force Gustave Courbet to tirelessly travel to many other French towns along the Mediterranean Sea, as well as to lakes and rivers in Switzerland, painting a large number of chef d’oeuvres with watery backgrounds.

Gustave Courbet’s life-long fetish for watery landscapes is on display at a museum in Normandy

Growing up in an age when painters in his own country initially devoted their talents to historical scenes and religious depictions, Courbet also depicted an unprecedented independence by being inspired by visions of everyday life. Experts agree that future art movements such as Impressionism and Cubism were undoubtedly following Gustave Courbet’s inventions.

Frozen Brem Valley
Frozen Brem Valley

By the middle of the 19th century, still in his early thirties, he would also begin concentrating on everyday scenes in the lives of the working class, attracting a great deal of admiration from art enthusiasts, as well as often violent criticism from political leaders. One of his famous and most controversial works was The Stone Breakers (later destroyed under German bombing during the World War II).

At this point in his life, despite his absolute devotion to art, Courbet would, for some reason, start getting involved in politics. His often-virulent statements against government policies landed him in prison for six months. This would be followed by a permanent exile to Switzerland, where he died in 1877, at the age of 58.

Ornans by the river Loue. Courbet was born in the first house on the left
Ornans by the river Loue. Courbet was born in the first house on the left

But coming back to Normandy, the still young and energetic painter’s favourite city remained Trouville, where he completed most of his works exclusively devoted to the sea, waterfalls, lakes and rivers. At the moment, the Villa Montebello Museum here is paying homage to Gustave Courbet by showing an astonishingly fascinating collection of these watery paintings.

‘The Ocean & Its Magic’ is being exhibited at the Villa Montebello Museum, Trouville-on-Sea in Normandy, France, until December 31, 2022

The writer is an art critic based in Paris. He may be reached at zafmasud@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 21st, 2022

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