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'Low Tide at Trouville' circa 1865, by Gustave Courbet


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About the artwork

Low Tide at Trouville is one of the seascapes that Courbet painted on his visit to the Normandy coast in the summer and autumn of 1865. We know from a letter that he wrote to his parents that the vastness of the sea had made a strong impression on Courbet as early as 1841. In another letter to his patron and friend Alfred Bruyas in 1866, Courbet records his joy of a summer holiday at Trouville and the paintings he produced there : "twenty fine autumn skies - each one more extraordinary and free than the last".

For much of his career Courbet focused on realistic rural landscapes. In painting this new subject, the sea, Courbet adjusted his style. Low Tide at Trouville is very harmonious in terms of colour. Indeed the skill of the artist lies in the atmospheric rendering of the seascape with minimal means.

The key of Courbet's palette was salmon pink and it can be seen in the centre of the painting where the horizon lies. From that he moved to softer pinks, blues and greys for the sky, sand tones and browns for the sand. The caricaturist G. Randon commented enthusiastically about the painting: "As God has created the sky and the earth from nothing, so has Courbet drawn his seascapes from nothing or almost nothing: with three colours from his palette, three brushstrokes - as he knows how to do it - and there is an infinite sea and sky!".

It is worth comparing this work to Ice Breaking up on the Seine by Monet (Room 11), a painting which also attempts to explore the relationship between the surface and the depth of the painting and the effect of light on landscapes. The Walker acquired Low Tide at Trouville in 1961 together with the painting White Houses, Ville d'Avray by Seurat (also in Room 11). The National Art Collections Fund contributed to the purchase cost, while an appeal made to large commercial and industrial firms on Merseyside also raised a significant amount of money.

The Life of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in the land-locked Franche-Comté region of France, the son of a prosperous farmer. In 1839 he moved to Paris to study painting, despite his father's wish for him to become a lawyer. Apart from his studio training, the young Gustave regularly visited museums and practised his skills by copying Flemish, Spanish, Dutch and Venetian paintings. He began sending paintings to the Paris Salon in 1841, and in 1849, after being awarded a medal for his painting After Dinner at Ornans, he was permitted an open entry to the Paris Salon. Despite his move to cosmopolitan Paris, Courbet always remained in touch with his hometown. The countryside around Ornans was an important source of inspiration for Courbet. However, his views of the rural scene were not romantic or ideal ones; instead he depicted the natural landscape as a dynamic entity subject to continuous and progressive change. He believed that the Realist artist's task was the pursuit of truth which could then help to erase social contradictions and imbalances. For Courbet, Realism was accompanied by socialist ideas. In terms of style, Realism was not a pursuit of perfection in line and form, but a spontaneous and rough handling of paint. This suggested direct observation by the artist and evoked the irregularities and imbalances in nature. Courbet exposed the harshness of ordinary life, and in so doing attacked academic notions of art. The last phase of Courbet's life was marked by his participation in the Paris Commune (1871) and his imprisonment in 1872. He was sentenced to six months in prison because of his participation in the Commune as one of a committee of artists responsible for the demolition of a Napoleonic monument in the Place Vendôme. After his release, Courbet was exiled to Switzerland where he died.