The Beach at Trouville
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

The Beach at Trouville, Circa 1865.

Oil on canvas, H. 0.335 m; W. 0.41 m

Signed lower left : G. Courbet.

Provenance: Private collection, France.

In the late summer of 1865, Courbet arrived in Trouville, a fishing village on the Channel coast that had already become a resort for the vacationing classes from Paris and beyond. The two or three weeks he had planned to stay grew into nearly three months, as he enjoyed an idyll of good weather, good company (Whistler and his mistress-model Jo Hiffernan were there for part of it), sea bathing and the acquaintance of new portrait clients – and not least the satisfactions of achieving a body of work that was of a new type in his painting. Looking back on the time in a letter to his patron Alfred Bruyas early in the following year, he revealed his awareness of this development by referring to the works as “paysages de mer…vingt-cinq ciels d’automne, tous plus extraordinaires et libres l’un que l’autre.” (Petra Chu, Correspondence de Courbet, Paris 1966, p. 244.)

These were paintings made en plein air, and the motif was the beach at Trouville, seen not as a setting for the kind of varied figures of visiting groups that populate the paintings of Boudin and others, but as an empty, or occasionally near-empty space that creates an emphasis on the compositional features of sand, sea, and sky. The horizontal banding of the first two rises to the larger mass of the sky, which becomes a field of ever-changing degrees of light and color. It is the skies that indicate the weather mode and the character of the light in the painting.

Courbet’s description of these works in the Bruyas letter may be in the boastful style the artist often used, but it also contains truth. Each of the seventeen works I have seen that fit his phrase “ciels d’automne” possesses a kind of geometric structure, sometimes close to abstraction, that stands apart not only from his peers but from his own previous paintings of the sea. These were the paintings, now recognized to have been made not on his first visit to Bruyas’ home in Montpellier but on the second and final trip to the Mediterranean, in 1858. These paintings, some of them on a fairly large scale, are compositionally different from the