The Wave

andrew key
18 min readJan 6, 2020

In the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, there’s an oil painting by Gustave Courbet from 1869 called La Vague. It’s not enormous, 23 inches by 31, tucked away in a corner of gallery 17, one of the last rooms of the museum. Before the visit on which I first saw this Courbet painting I only knew about the Legion of Honor from having watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Despite having lived in Berkeley for three years, just across the San Francisco Bay, I had never made the trip to the museum. It’s a very airy space, lots of sunlight, tucked up in a green corner of the city that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and a golf course. I hadn’t been before because it takes such a long time to get there by public transport: an hour by train, then an hour by bus. The museum is a three-quarter-scale model of a French neoclassical palais that was built in the 1920s; there’s a casting of Rodin’s The Thinker in the courtyard at the front. The park is pleasant, lush in an expensively artificial Californian way, with expanses of the Pacific Ocean opening up on three sides. There are a few Rembrandts, a collection of small Rodins. It’s a nice museum, but there’s nothing particularly special about it.

Nor is there anything particularly remarkable about the Courbet painting there, one of a number given the title La Vague. It’s one of the very many seascapes that Courbet dashed off to order in the years before his involvement in the Paris Commune, painted at Etretat in Normandy, just up the coast from Le Havre. In typical Courbet style, the paint has been applied to the canvas with a palette knife, roughly and quickly. There are no human figures in the painting, though on the right of the canvas near the horizon is a small and indistinct boat, and perhaps to the right of that boat there is the suggestion of another boat further in the distance. The sea is green and brown with white and grey spray coming off the wave, which is crashing onto some rocks in the bottom left quarter of the painting, sloshing over the horizon to blur the distinction between the water and the sky, which is a bruised colour with a few slivers of salmon and mottled pink skin tones. And that’s it. There isn’t much more to say about it. It doesn’t take long to absorb the visual content of the painting: a wave crashing against some rocks, perhaps in the middle of a winter afternoon, just as the sun is setting. The boats in the distance offer no possibility of narrative, no way to engage the beholder of the painting as a participant in the scene. Very quickly, any consideration of what the painting depicts gives way to consideration of how the painting was made. Content gives way to technique. The beholder, if they’re still interested, starts looking at the rough quality of the paint, the quality of the impasto. But there’s not really much further you can go with the painting than that, unless you’re a connoisseur of seascapes or of Courbet or of mid-nineteenth century French painting. I am none of those. And yet, I’ve spent the past few years thinking obsessively about this painting; setting it as my computer’s desktop background, looking at various reproductions, looking at photographs I took of it on my phone, comparing it with the other seascapes Courbet did at the same time as this one, trying to do something with it; trying to look myself into the painting.

This painting, about which it is hard to find much information because there are so many other paintings Courbet did with the same title, has become talismanic for me because I saw it in the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, on a beautiful day in June in 2017, about a week before my father unexpectedly and very suddenly dropped dead. He went for a bike ride and suffered a cardiac arrest and that was that. I flew back to England a couple of days after I received the news, and I’ve more or less been there since. Since then my life has felt often as if it were in abeyance. I have been milling about on academic fellowships, drawing them out for as long as possible, despite abandoning any intention of completing the doctoral dissertation in English Literature that I was just starting in earnest that June, but not doing much work other than the work of bereavement. On the flight from San Francisco to Reykjavik, where I had a lay-over before returning to England, I started trying to write about this painting. I keep coming back to Courbet and to his seascapes, even though they have nothing to do with what my so-called “real” work—my academic work—was about, as if they’re a way for me to organise something about my relationship to my father, to turn something that was left amorphous and unsaid during his life into something finished and comprehensible. This is part of the interruption which accompanies a sudden death: it feels as if all at once you are left to resolve an entire two-sided relationship by yourself.

On that flight from San Francisco to Reykjavik after my father’s death, the very first shock of the bereavement started to shift a little and a memory emerged; one which I hadn’t thought about for years. I am ten years old, maybe a few years older. I’m upstairs in an art gallery in Ludlow, a small market town in the county in which I grew up. This gallery, for reasons that are still opaque to me, specialises in maritime paintings, despite being in the largest inland county in the United Kingdom: a fact that had already been drilled into me as a ten year old. I’m upstairs in this gallery with my father. I don’t remember if anyone else is up there with us; the edges of the memory are imprecise. There’s a painting on the wall, which now I would guess is from the nineteenth century. I have no idea who painted it, and I wouldn’t be able to recognise it if I saw it again today. The paint is thickly applied browns, blues, greys and greens, and I’m standing up close to the painting without being able to make sense of it. I have no idea what it’s meant to be. I don’t think I can recognise it as something figurative. I don’t have the words to describe it as a ten year old, of course. I have already heard about modern art and people who just throw paint over a canvas; I think that maybe it’s one of those. I’m up close to the painting, practically breathing on it, trying to understand what exactly it is supposed to be a painting of, and then I feel my father’s hands on my shoulders and I feel him walking me backwards so I’m about five metres away from the painting and suddenly the painting converges into a seascape. I can see the light on the waves, the spray and the clouds, the movement of the waves. Something clicks in my mind, a new way of looking. When I look at the Courbet painting in the Legion of Honor, years later, it’s this moment of convergence that I experience again. Something messy shifts slightly and becomes recognisable; I move and let the image cohere, I can get out from under the pressure of language, glimpse the motion of the paint being slapped against the canvas, step back, breath the air, feel the spray.

I was in London a few weeks after his death, walking around Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, when I found myself on the verge of panic. The immediate aftermath of a sudden bereavement is strange, in that the old rhythms of your life can re-emerge without your noticing. I had gone into Foyle’s to buy a book, acting as if I could still read. I had gone in with a particular book in mind, but I felt my mind drain down into emptiness and stood overwhelmed by the amount of words on the shelves. I had spent so much time reading, and for what? Literature felt like nothing, less than nothing. I had been wasting my time. The irrational thought: all my reading hadn’t stopped my father from dying suddenly. When he was alive, literature had been a thread I had used to tie myself to him — to win his approval, to give us something to talk about. But what good had it been, really? I felt this sense of waste, and I felt as if I had forgotten everything I once knew about the written word, that I had forgotten how to read.

I left the bookshop. I tried to control my breathing as I walked down Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square. I wandered without paying much attention to where I was going into the National Gallery, full of tourists. I kept walking and trying to calm myself down, until I eventually stopped in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait, one painted at the age of 63. I stared at this painting for a long time, looking closely at the material of the paint, the thickness around the eyes, the softness of the light, the vague expression on his face. I was trying to empty my mind of words, to wriggle out from underneath language, trying to will myself into becoming an eye so that I could somehow control this feeling of being abandoned by language.

Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in the year of his death, a similar age to that of my father when he died. Now, a few years later, that connection seems pointed, almost too sharp — artificial perhaps. But I didn’t notice this when I looked at the picture that July. I knew it was a Rembrandt, I recognised the painting, but I didn’t register any of the information about it. I just looked at the paint on the canvas for as long as I could and tried not to think about anything else. The materiality of the paint — its thickness, its heavy application, its realness — gave me something onto which I could grasp. Language felt fraught with failure, airy, unclear, imprecise. Unreal. But the painting felt concrete, material, ballast.

In trying to understand the hold that La Vague in the Legion of Honor has had over me, I revert to my academic training. I order a copy of Courbet’s collected letters, hoping that he will have written some pithy statement about the sea, which I can use to better understand his paintings. The book takes three weeks to arrive. Eventually an enormous hardback turns up, withdrawn from circulation from a public library in Atlanta and which looks unread. At first I use the index to look for Courbet’s mentions of the sea paintings, or the places he painted them — Trouville and Etretat. I mostly find his concern with finances, with how many paintings he’s sold and for how much. In 1870, after the Salon in Paris, he writes to his family: “Nobody has ever had a success like the one I had this year with my seascapes.” Most of the other letters dealing with the seascapes are similar in tone: business transactions, financial records. In one letter, written to Victor Hugo in 1864, Courbet offers something different, suggesting some of the uses to which the sea can be put, and buying into the Romantic conceit of an oceanic metaphor for personal turmoil, mimicking Hugo’s own style:

The sea! The sea with its charms saddens me. In its joyful moods, it makes me think of a laughing tiger; in its sad moods it recalls the crocodile’s tears and, in its roaring fury, the caged monster that cannot swallow me up.

Courbet was from the Franche-Comte region of France, at home hunting in the forests and the mountains. At the coast he was as much of a tourist as anyone else. When Baudelaire was once trying to take Courbet to the most famous vantage points along the coast, the painter told the poet that “there is no point of view”: any place was as good a subject for a painting as any other.

The sea paintings sold well, helping to establish Courbet’s growing popularity and allowing him to assert his independence as an artist. During his first visits to Trouville, on the Normandy coast, he painted over 35 seascapes, some of which were completed in under two hours and sold for 12 or 15 Francs. Later, he would paint seascapes and landscapes to order: clients could stipulate how many deer they wanted to be present in a forest scene, or pay extra for a boat in a seascape, or the suggestion of a fisherman, if fishing was their thing. When his financial difficulties were at their peak in his later years, after his imprisonment and exile to Switzerland and his enormous debt to the French government for the cost of restoring the Vendôme Column, he painted from memory and falsified the dates, or had assistants paint from memory and added his signature. There were numerous forgeries. The seascapes became an integral part of Courbet’s nascent mythology. Caricatures of him and his work focused on his seascapes and the technique of painting them with a palette knife. Guy de Maupassant, among others, helped to propagate the myth of Courbet as vulgar peasant painter:

In a huge, empty room, a fat, dirty, greasy man was slapping white paint on a blank canvas with a kitchen knife. From time to time he would press his face against the window and look out at the storm. The sea came so close that it seemed to batter the house and completely envelope it in its foam and roar. The salty water beat against the windowpanes like hail, and ran down the walls. On his mantelpiece was a bottle of cider next to a half-filled glass. Now and then, Courbet would take a few swigs, and then return to his work. This work became The Wave, and caused quite a sensation around the world.

I read journal articles, academic monographs. I learn that, of course, there is a critical disagreement about Courbet’s seascapes. Some art historians focus on the market generated by the seascapes, suggesting that Courbet was just dashing off rough and ready paintings in order to make some quick cash and generate a buzz of celebrity around him. These arguments suggest that the paintings were done so that tired businessmen who lived in Paris could look at them in their drawing room after a busy day at work and feel rejuvenated: the lack of human activity in the seascapes allows the beholder to imagine themselves as the only solitary presence on the shore. Other art historians suggest that the formal composition of the sea paintings, their division into zones of equal importance (sea, sky, cliffs), is a statement by Courbet the revolutionary artist about democracy and social equality: the paintings are nonhierarchical; their flatness and emptiness means that every element of the composition is equally as significant as any other element.

Walter Benjamin recognised the historical significance of the seascapes, in the context of the developing relationship between painting and photography, writing that in the seascapes

a photographic subject was discovered through painting. In Courbet’s time, both the enlarged photo and the snapshot were unknown. His painting showed them the way. It equipped an expedition to explore a world of forms and structures which were not captured on the photographic plate until a decade later. Courbet’s special position was that he was the last who could attempt to surpass photography.

For a while this Benjamin quotation felt helpful, as if it might be a way into something. My father was vaguely interested in the relationship between painting and photography, and sometimes he talked about trying to learn more about it if and when he retired. This brief mention in a very minor piece of Benjamin’s suggested a connection between my own interests and those of my father, and for a moment it seemed as if there might be a way forward with the uncertainty I felt about my fixation on this painting. But the more I read this quotation the less I understood it, or the less I saw what I could do with it. I don’t know if I agree with Benjamin, or what I could do with this idea if I did agree with it. It doesn’t resolve anything about my feeling for La Vague, or explain my attachment, and soon it starts to feel like a dead end.

Roland Barthes begins his late work on photography and mourning, Camera Lucida, with a description of the amazement he experienced on realising that, by looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, he was “looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Nobody he mentions it to shares or even understands his enthusiasm about this fact, so he forgets it for a while. “Life consists of these little touches of solitude,” he tells us. I began to feel that my attitude to La Vague was one of these touches of loneliness, and that gave me comfort. In a by now well-known distinction from this book, Barthes distinguishes between the studium of a photograph — the intentional composition, the historical or aesthetic context, that which demands a polite attention or interest based on a particular kind of cultural training on the part of the beholder — and the punctum, the point or detail in the photograph which causes personal pleasure or interest for the beholder. The punctum can be an object (a pair of shoes, say, or a belt) or even a partial object (a crooked smile, a collar on a shirt, folded arms in a pose). I can’t quite map this schema onto the Courbet painting, and I’m not sure it’s one that translates to painting, because for Barthes the punctum is about accident: it cannot be staged or intended by the photographer. There is no punctum in La Vague, it is pure studium: provoking a mild interest in painterly technique using the palette knife. But maybe, to dramatically over-inflate Barthes’s distinction, the painting itself works as a punctum against the backdrop of the whole museum: it is the painting which moves me for wholly personal reasons, which arrests the feeling of cultivated boredom I feel in the Legion of Honor. Despite the painting’s emptiness and its reliance on the immediate effect caused by the crudeness of its technique, I find myself tied to it. Barthes talks about an umbilical cord linking him to photography, a thread that he cannot trace back to its origin but the composition of which he can try and understand. The Courbet painting ties me to my father — a man who loved the sea, who loved seascapes, and who spent his entire life living inland; a man who in another life could easily have been one of the urban middle class art collectors commissioning Courbet paintings of seascapes to relax them after a day in the office.

For Barthes, sorting through the photographs of his mother after her death was a devotional practice, one that allowed him to find the photograph which could serve as a private relic for his mourning. There are not many photographs of my father: he didn’t particularly like having his picture taken. During the preparations for his funeral we searched for an appropriate and recent image of him to use on the order of service. Eventually we chose a headshot he had taken for work: he’s looking straight ahead, wearing an open-collared blue shirt, with a very slight quizzical smile. I find it an impersonal photograph. It looks like him, but in many ways it has nothing to do with him. In the first few weeks of mourning, I found looking at photographs of him difficult, and in fact I still don’t have a photograph of him that I look at regularly. I hadn’t seen him for about six months before his death and found that the mental image I had of him did not correspond to any of the photographs I saw of him. And looking at pictures of him, trying to find an appropriate one, became an act of communal mourning under which I chafed. Barthes writes that looking at photographs is always a private act, but I found the sorting through boxes of family photographs almost unbearably painful because of its shared nature. I felt that everyone’s sense of my father and of the past was completely distinct and separate and couldn’t be aligned. It didn’t help that around this time I was seeing my father’s ghost almost everyday, often when I looked in the mirror. A certain line on my face, a look in my eyes. It didn’t help that many people mentioned how much I was beginning to look like him. I felt as if I was a reminder for other people of his death, without being able to articulate my own sense of loss: that I was living as his ghostly presence. So I recoiled from his image, and the more I recoiled, the more frequently I caught a glimpse of it in my reflection. When I went to see his prepared corpse in the funeral home, jet-lagged and hollow, one of the worst experiences of my life, it took me longer than I had expected to recognise him. I felt a sense of unreality sweep over me: this wasn’t him, it was somebody that looks as if it could have been his brother, perhaps, even though my father was an only child.

I recoiled from his image because it was too painful to see his face and somehow not recognise it, and it was too difficult to share this pain with other people. I wanted to cling onto my grief, and to nurture it in secret. Proust’s narrator writes about “the originality of [his] suffering” when he is mourning his grandmother; Barthes talks about “the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself.” I recognise myself in this impulse: the narcissistic pleasure of bereavement. Yes, everyone around me is mourning, but only I am mourning in this way. I wanted to keep hold of this feeling of élan, my originality; I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I felt myself becoming brittle, hard. I needed a vessel for the feeling — somewhere I could stash it, something that could contain it, a devotional object. We protect our bereavements, taking care to nurture them, feed them, pamper them: we indulge it publicly and privately. Grief requires piety, and the erecting of secret shrines. The La Vague in the Legion of Honor became a shrine for my bereavement, one which I can return to again and again, pretending to seek out new details, ones which I know won’t be there, as a way of sustaining my grief.

The Courbet painting became a point of fixation for me not just because I had used it as a vessel for my bereavement, but because it was a link to my life before the death. Barthes calls his life before his mother’s death “another shore” in his Mourning Diary — “another country, the country of before” — which appears to him as dreary and unappealing. My life before the bereavement remains a site of ambivalence and ambiguity. I wasn’t happy in California, or in graduate school, but I was slowly approaching something like contentment there. Since the death things have changed quite dramatically for me, perhaps for the better, but part of my loss is the loss of my life on that other shore. The Courbet painting is a souvenir from that time — from the very last weeks of my life as it was and had been for three years. By looking at La Vague, or at the reproductions of it I found on the internet, or the photos of it I had taken on my phone, I could retain a tie to the moment before the interruption of my father’s death threw me into the state of uncertainty in which I have spent so much time over the past few years. Of course, it could have been a different painting — it’s only chance that I saw this Courbet when I did — but we can’t consciously choose our attachments or how we use them, and I can’t explain my own aesthetic attachments without feeling a sense of doing some injustice to them, lying about them. All of my writing or talking about the Legion of Honor La Vague can only approximate the importance of this painting for me; I can only be analogical, associative. Barthes again: “I could not express this accord except by an infinite series of adjectives, which I omit.” This writing is in part a way to examine this feeling of incapacity and inadequacy that has been with me for so long, which now I hope to be able to jettison.

I am incapable of critically evaluating or assessing the Courbet in the Legion of Honor, and in fact the idea of doing so doesn’t interest me. The more I learn about this painting, about its place within the series of Courbet’s seascapes and the practicalities of their production, the more stubborn and unmovable I feel in my affection for it. It doesn’t matter to me that it was most probably rushed off to satisfy a client that Courbet considered to be a philistine. As Barthes puts it: “I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from an eye that isn’t my own.” I am increasingly aware that no writing about this painting could explain it to me, or resolve anything — I refuse to listen, I stop up my ears. I don’t care about the social history of art. In spite the years I spent in universities studying aesthetic theory, I love this painting purely out of sentimentality. My experience of mourning has involved seemingly endless contortions and acts of self-justification, as well as the inevitable denial. I have looked obsessively at the painting, again and again, pouring over the same details in the hopes of eventually seeing some new feature that could forever change the meaning of the painting for me, trying to find something that I’d missed, something which would finally resolve the question of my attachment to it. Of course, there is nothing else to see in the painting and I know now that this is characteristic of Courbet’s seascapes. But I refused to accept that it was one of many; a minor work by a major painter. Courbet’s more famous seascapes don’t move me in the least. It is gratifying to see that Paul Cézanne comes close to agreeing with me (though he is writing about still another Courbet sea painting: Stormy Sea (The Wave) in the Musée d’Orsay, painted 1870):

These great Vagues, the one in Berlin, is marvellous, one of the important creations of the century, much more exciting, more full blown than the one here. 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.

But this agreement doesn’t even confirm my feelings about the painting; I can’t or won’t test them against Cézanne’s opinion, the opinion of someone who surely looked at the painting with much more intelligence and feel for what a good painting was than I could ever hope to manage. In fact, Cézanne’s opinion about the wave paintings almost irks me, it feels like an affront to my narcissism: only I like this Courbet — it hangs on a wall in San Francisco, but really it belongs to me.