Regardless of where I stand… it is all good, as long as I have nature before my eyes.
Courbet’s landscapes are sensually perceived manifestations of his idea of the vitality and dynamism of the land itself, and this is achieved through the materiality of the actual act of painting. Just as Courbet’s relationship with the land is physical, so is the process of transferring that vision to canvas. Courbet used dark grounds to prime his canvases, learned from the Dutch Old Masters in the Louvre, and he built up his landscapes from dark to light, bringing his paintings to life the same way sunlight brightens the surface of the sea and modulates the greens of the forest. Courbet painted with a brush, but also used a palette knife to capture the solidity of rock surfaces and hills, and sometimes used bags, sponges and even his fingers in order to replicate the visceral quality of the weight of forms in nature. Courbet sought to convey the materiality and density of landscape, concentrating for example on the specific characteristics of individual rock formations or trees, rather than on a mountain range or a forest. As Laurence des Cars writes: ‘his entire approach as a landscape painter aimed to make the reality of a site his own through a feeling of closeness to the subject; it is without equivalent in French painting of the time. In this revolution of the gaze, the technical principles that underlie composition, the use of color and the density of paint were turned upside down in order to convey the structure and essence of his subjects, beyond their appearance’ (exh. cat., Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, p. 227).
Courbet’s earliest seascape dates to 1841 when he first visited the Normandy coast. He approached the subject again in 1854 on a visit to Montpelier on the Mediterranean, but immersed himself in earnest during his later trips to Normandy in 1859, 1860, 1865, 1866, culminating in the prodigious output of seascapes in 1869. There he was introduced formally to the genre by Eugene Boudin, an established master of beach and sea scenes (whom Courbet called ‘the king of skies’), and it was there Courbet also met James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. His experiences in Normandy inspired Courbet to launch his seascapes in new directions. The coastal landscapes produced during the 1860s offered the artist not only commercial success but also an opportunity to explore the complexities of land, sea and sky.
Les dunes de Deauville cannot be strictly categorized as a landscape or a seascape and is closer to classical landscape painting than many other works in the genre by the artist: the horizon line splits the canvas in two and the formation of the hills that surround the beach at Deauville while the paths winding through them imbues the painting with a great sense of spatial depth. The small cabanas which dot the hillside in the background are unusual in the oeuvre of the artist, however a more careful reading of the canvas shows that these structures appear almost as echoes of the surrounding landscape, hunkered down low in hollows of the hills, as integral and as rooted to their surroundings as the rocks which are scattered across the foreground. The palette of subtly modulated greens and browns in the foreground, and the transition to the clear deep blue of the band of sea pull the motifs of the foreground into a unified whole and give the composition a down-to-earth feel which harks back clearly to the 17th century Dutch Landscapes by artists such as Salomon Ruysdael and Meindert Hobbema.
More than half this composition is actually sky. It is a tour-de-force study of clouds and the light effects of a sun already set on the landscape at the close of the day. In the painting of the sky, illuminated only by the residual light of sunset, Courbet demonstrates his unique talent of capturing the majestic effects of nature in a palette of greys, lavenders, blues and pinks, creating an impression of the movement of the clouds and the softness of the atmosphere at the end of day. The figure of the shepherd leaning against his staff watching the changing sky adds a sense of peace and contemplation. The present work is a clear manifestation of Courbet’s unique ability to extract a sense of grandeur from an apparently modest theme painted in restricted colors.