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Gustave Courbet | La trombe, 1867

Like the waves he so perfectly captured, Courbet's love affair with the sea ebbed and flowed throughout his career. Born a child of the rugged mountainous terrain around Ornans in the Franche-Comté, Courbet's first glimpse of the sea only came in 1841 during a visit to Normandy with his childhood friend, Urbain Cuenot. Courbet's future interest in the sea as subject derived from visits to different coastal towns and can be divided into five distinct phases: 1854 and the views of the Mediterranean he made from Palavas-les-Flots, while visiting Alfred Bruyas in Montpelier, 1865 during a sojourn on the Normandy coast and a period when the sea provided the backdrop for some of his greatest portraits, such as the Countess Karoly (RF 439), 1866-67 in Trouville and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, where the sea water is predominantly calm, almost in anticipation of the great series of crashing waves that occurred in 1869-70 and finally at Lac Leman, the lake and its shore that represented the final years of Courbet's life, while exiled in Switzerland.
Robert Fernier places La Trombe during Courbet's August 1867 visit to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast. In a letter to his sisters Zoé and Juliette dated August 25, 1867, Courbet commented that the sea at Saint-Aubin "is a bit far and bare" (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 319, no. 67-25), and many of the paintings from this period do indeed include a very low horizon line with an infinite view of the sea. The cresting, turbulent waves in Courbet's "landscapes of the sea" only start to burst forth in the late 1860's, however the dramatic, pouring streams of black rain in the La Trombe of 1867 announce their creation.
La Trombe is related to a smaller version of the same subject in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a comparison of the two works may offer visual evidence as to how Courbet himself defined his subjects, as he commented to Daubigny, "It's not a seascape, it's a time of day.
That's what people don't fully understand yet, that one doesn't paint a landscape, a seascape, a figure; one paints the effect of a time of day on a landscape, a seascape, or a figure" (quoted in J. Rischel, "Courbet", Manet and the Sea, exh. cat, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 163).
It is possible that the Phildelphia Waterspout and La Trombe depict a scene that took place on the same day, and that Courbet was interested in recording the effects that occurred at different times during the storm.
The setting is similar with the boats almost placed in the same configuration in each painting, but what is noticeably different is the position of the storm with its dramatic waterspout. In the smaller version, the storm appears further out to sea and there is still light breaking through the clouds. In La Trombe the storm is much more eminent; the sky is darker, the sheets of pouring rain heavier.
But, the most striking difference is that La Trombe features the figure of a tiny woman on a rock, her arms raised to the heavens as she looks out at the approaching storm and the boats caught in its violent wake. Her ancestor is clearly the "Courbet/Bruyas" portrait in one of Courbet's earliest seascapes, the 1854 Seacoast at Palavas.
Because Courbet rarely chose to show a human presence in his seascapes, the inclusion of this tiny figure makes the painting all the more interesting. She almost smacks of anecdote in much the same way as the addition of a deer in Courbet's winter snow scenes changed the mood of the painting. Anecdotal or symbolic, this figure cannot be ignored, but the meaning of her presence remains elusive. | © Sotheby’s