The Wave


Gustave Courbet ( French, 1819 - 1877 )

About 1869–1870
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General Description

“The sea! The sea! . . . in her fury which growls, she reminds me of a caged monster who can devour me.” Gustave Courbet wrote these words in a letter to the writer Victor Hugo in 1864. The ominous and violent aspects of the artist’s description can be seen in this canvas, which depicts a wave about to break under a stormy sky. The viewer is engulfed in roiling surf, made more immediate by Courbet’s visible application of thick paint, much of which he boldly smeared on the canvas using a palette knife to conjure the sensation of moving water and foam. The Wave belongs to a series of paintings that Courbet produced during a stay in Etretat on the Normandy Coast. His subject of an isolated wave, presented up close and frozen in time, was entirely innovative and challenged the traditional academic mode of depicting idyllic or picturesque seascapes.

Excerpt from

Nicole Myers, DMA label copy, 2017.

Fun Facts

  • This work was once in the collection of renowned American architect, Stanford White (1853-1906), who also designed the frame for another DMA painting, John White Alexander's Miss Dorothy Quincy Roosevelt (1901-1902; 2007.36).

Web Resources

Courbet, The Wave, 1870 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museum zu Berlin)
Check out the audio, essays, and map available on the Google Cultural Institute for another of Courbet's seaside works.