View of the Mediterranean at Maguelonne, 1858

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

  • Oil on Canvas, 92 x 135 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
    (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

Gustave Courbet was one of the most important representatives of Realism, an art movement which chose to portray everyday reality and ordinary people instead of grand mythological or historical scenes. The chief innovation was that these ‘commonplace’ situations and objects were no longer of secondary importance: they now took centre stage and were often depicted in large format. This canvas, for example, shows a small area of beach with some rocks and a calm sea; there is no drama or human presence.
However, the technique is spectacular: Courbet has used a palette knife to apply the paint in broad sweeps; the ground shows through in many areas of the sky, creating the effect of an endless space with a suggestion of soft evening light.

More information about "View of the Mediterranean at Maguelonne"

Miraculous!

Courbet stayed with the collector Alfred Bruyas in Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast. There the artist painted many seascapes with which he was extremely satisfied. In 1867 he included this painting in a one-man show held in a pavilion that he had commissioned especially for the event in Paris. It was no coincidence that this pavilion was located close to the site of the Exposition Universelle which drew many visitors.

But not everyone was enthusiastic about Courbet’s seascapes. A critic wrote ironically: ‘Just as God created heaven and earth out of nothing, so Mister Courbet creates his seascapes out of nothing or almost nothing: three colours on the palette, three brushstrokes – as only he can – and lo and behold, a sea and an endless sky! Miraculous! Miraculous! Miraculous!’

Van Gogh

Van Gogh greatly admired Courbet and his work. The Dutch painter was extremely attracted by the fact that Courbet was a champion of realist painting which depicted the everyday world. Like his French colleague Van Gogh disliked grand academic painting with its narrative themes which he described as ‘stale and boring’. In one of his letters he concurred with Courbet’s well-known criticism of history paintings: ‘Peindre des anges! Qui est-ce qui a vu des anges?’ (Painting angels! Who has seen angels?).
Both artists chose instead to paint simple, everyday subjects – landscapes and hardworking people. And both depicted these with the same heroic overtones as the imaginary subjects of history painting.

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