Gustave Courbet

(1819 1877)
Les Gorges de la Loue
Les Gorges de la Loue, ca. 1860–1863
Signed lower right, G. Courbet Oil on canvas
74.5 x 101 cm


Mme Merle, Paris (sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, October 1889, lot 474) Hôtel Drouot, Paris, August 1892, lot 300
Léon Orosdi (sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 1923, lot 10)
M. Dejean (purchased at the above sale)
Galerie Aktuaryus, Zurich
Emil Bührle (purchased from the above on 24.02.1937) Dr. Dieter Bührle, Zurich
Private Collection, Switzerland
Sotheby’s, London, December 2014, lot 21
Private Collection, England
Private Collection, Switzerland


Bordeaux, Société des Amis des Arts, 1864, no. 130.


Robert Fernier, La Vie et l’oeuvre de Gustave Courbet. Catalogue raisonné. Lausanne and Paris, 1977, vol. 1, pl 170, no. 281; illus. p. 171.
This painting represents one of Courbet’s favorite landscape subjects, the deep, rocky gorges surrounding a stream that flows or pushes through a dense, secluded landscape. A tributary of the Doubs river, the Loue runs through craggy limestone cliffs that are characteristic of the region near Courbet’s native Ornans, a small town in the mountainous Franche-Comté region of eastern France. In both Courbet’s landscape practice and his public presentation of himself as an artist, he established a close connection between his identity and the Franche-Comté, a region with particular social resonance and an impressive, rugged topography. He famously depicted himself at work on a landscape painting of the environs of Ornans in his monumental work of 1855, The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life (Musée d’Orsay, 361 x 598 cm).
As is typical in Courbet’s landscapes of the cliffs, streams, gorges, waterfalls and caves of the Doubs valley, our painting does not include human figures. Instead, it the painter’s forceful touch and the evidence of his gestures that animate this landscape, as the varied application of paint gives substance to the rough textures of the rocks and cliffs, the frothing water that pushes over the rocks, and the thick green shrubs that provide masses of light and dark to the composition. In these paintings, Courbet employed various tools —different sized brushes, palette knife, rags, and sometimes a thumb—to build up layers of paint and scrape them down 1. As Mary Morton has discussed,Courbet’s contemporary observers frequently associated the painter’s use of the palette knife with the frankness of his vision and procedures, and with the convincing, naturalistic effects of his paintings. As Jules Castagnary wrote in 1882, in the catalogue of Courbet’s posthumous exhibition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts:

“Courbet used paint thickly, but without harshness and without roughness: his pictures are as smooth as ice, and shine like enamel. He achieves relief and movement at the same time by using just the right shade; and this shade, put on flat with a palette knife, acquires an extraordinary intensity. I have never seen any richer or more distinguished use of color, nor one that gains so much with age. 2
Fernier has dated this work around 1860-63, which would place it shortly before Courbet’s 1864 series depicting the source of the Loue, in which a grotto or cave serves as the focus of a particularly dense, dark, skyless composition (1864, Metropolitan Museum of Art). By contrast, our painting is comparable to numerous works in which Courbet presents a wide range of landscape elements and textures against a bright blue sky, with strong contrasts of light and shade integrated into the composition, such as Landscape near Ornans (1864, Toledo Museum of Art). The composition of a later work, Source of the Doubs in the Rocks (1871, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon) is similar to that of our painting.

  1. Mary Morton, “To Create a Living Art: Rethinking Courbet’s Landscape Painting,” in Courbet and the Modern Landscape, exh. cat., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006, pp. 6-7.
  2. Morton, p. 7. Castagnary is cited in note 26. The above translation of Castagnary’s text is from the Musée d’Orsay website: dossier/reception-of-courbets-work.html accessed 7/30/2017.


La Vague (The Wave), 1872-73
La Vague (The Wave), 1872-73
Oil on canvas
Signed lower left, G. Courbet
55 x 65.5 cm


Collection Schäfer, Schweinfurt; Collection Nusser, Munich (by 1964); Collection Buehler, Stuttgart (2008); Galerie Beck und Eggling, Düsseldorf; Galerie Haas AG, Zürich (2010); Private Collection, Switzerland.


Jean-Jacques Fernier, 27 January, 2005, Paris . This work is to published in the forthcoming supplement to the Catalogue Raisonné Critique de l’Oeuvre de Gustave Courbet by Jean-Jacques Fernier.

Sarah Faunce, New York, February 2015.

Further Documentation

Certificate from The Art Loss Register, attesting that the painting has not, to the best of their knowledge, been registered as stolen or missing in their database, nor has a claimant reported this work to them as lost between 1933 and 1945.

This painting of a cresting wave, on the verge of breaking against a blazing sky at dusk, is part of a large series of paintings of single waves that Courbet painted from ca. 1869-1872. Like most of the artist’s later seascapes, the wave series is based on studies of the Normandy coast that he made during visits in 1859, 1860, 1865, 1866, and especially 1869. It was in Normandy that Courbet met Eugène-Louis Boudin, an acknowledged master of the seascape genre in the 1850s and 1860s, as well as the younger Normandy visitors James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. Like Courbet, Monet and Whistler were experimenting with modernist modes of seascape painting. They favored direct, apparently spontaneous modes of paint application, while paring down the subject matter to simple elements, and bold effects of light and atmosphere on the sea, horizon and sky.

A number of Courbet’s wave paintings are closely related to one another in composition and distribution of light and dark. Our painting is related to examples that include The Wave of ca. 1871 in the National Gallery of Scotland (Fernier 1977-78, vol. 2, no. 681), though the smaller, Edinburgh version places the wave under a blue sky.

Courbet’s fascination with the immense power and dynamism of the sea is expressed in his letter to Victor Hugo in 1864. “La Mer! La mer! … elle me rapelle dans sa fureur qui gronde le monstre en cage qui peut m’avaler.” (The sea! The sea! … in her growling fury, she reminds me of a of the caged monster who can devour me. Cited in Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin, Courbet Reconsidered, exhibition catalogue, The Brooklyn Museum, 1988, p. 188.) Courbet’s wave paintings in particular have long been associated with the artist’s ability to seize an experience of nature through a vigorous address of the canvas with paint, brush, and knife. As the novelist Guy de Maupassant recalled his visit to Courbet on the Normandy coast 1869:

In a great bare room a fat, dirty, greasy man was spreading patches of white paint on to the canvas with a kitchen-knife. From time to time he went and pressed his face against the window pane to look at the storm. The sea came up so close that it seemed to beat right against the house, which was smothered in foam and noise. The dirty water rattled like hail against the window and streamed down the walls. On the mantelpiece was a bottle of cider and a half-empty glass. Every now and then Courbet would drink a mouthful and then go back to his painting. It was called The Wave and it made a good deal of stir in its time. (Guy de Maupassant, “La vie d’un paysagiste,” in Gil Blas, 28 September 1886, cited in Mary Morton and Charlotte Eyerman, Courbet and the Modern Landscape, exhibition catalogue, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007, pp. 104-105.)

For Paul Cézanne, The Wave in the Berlin Nationalgalerie conjured a sensory experience of the subject in a remarkably vivid way, with overwhelming physical force:

The great Waves, the one in Berlin, is marvelous, one of the important creations of the century, much more exciting, more full blown than the one here [referring to Stormy Sea (The Wave), now in the Musée d’Orsay]. Its green is much wetter, the orange much dirtier, with its windswept foam, and its tide which appears to come from the depth of the ages, its tattered sky, and its pale bitterness. It hits you right in the stomach. You have to step back. The entire room feels the spray. (Cited in Mary Morton and Charlotte Eyerman, Courbet and the Modern Landsape, exhibition catalogue, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007, p. 32).

A letter from Jean-Jacques Fernier of 2005 dates this work 1871-72, before the artist’s self-imposed exile in Switzerland, which was the tragic, final period of the artist’s career. This period followed his arrest and imprisonment in 1871 for his participation in the short-lived Paris Commune and role in the Commune’s destruction of the Vendôme Column. In 1873, Courbet was ordered to pay the costs of reconstructing the column, which left him impoverished. He feared a return to prison, and fled to Switzerland. Fernier’s dating is based on the style of the signature and provenance of the canvas. The canvas’s verso identifies the shop of Ottoz Freres on the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, where Courbet frequently purchased paint and supplies in the 1860s.