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Courbet Exhibition in Ferrara, the curious case of Courbet's Waves.

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

"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".

- Guy de Maupassant

What can i say - it was great.

I went to Ferrara to catch the last day of an exhibition Courbet and Nature at the Palazzo dei Diamanti. Everyone in the know says they make good shows there and i am bound to agree. The show is not too big, concentrated on what Courbet was best at and intelligently presented.

There were some marvellous rocks and wooded glades, dappled shade and trees, the dark waters of the landscapes from around Ornans which he painted with the cocky bravado and passion of youth, barely twenty, before moving to Paris and then on summer holidays back home.

The best of the forest ones is from Washington. Jaw-dropping stuff.

I love his waves, which he painted in the summers of 1869 and 1970 in Normandy, there are around 70 of them scattered around the world through the museums big and small and in private collections; the legend has it he painted them with a kitchen knife.

I would like to be a fly on the wall there and one of my favourite pastimes is rapidly becoming the Wave spotting, like trainspotting: I've seen one in Musee d'Orsay, there is one in Rome(! ) a lovely one in Städel in Frankfurt, in the Oskar Reinhart Collection in Winterthur, one in Edinburgh Scottish National Gallery... the one in this photo is in Berlin.

Why so many? they must have been popular from the start. What he does with the oil paint is mindblowing, the acrylic just wouldn't do it, particularly with the palette knife. His palette knife use requires a special study.

I was moved by the paintings from his last years in exile when he was drinking himself to death and got so fat he could hardly move.

There were no anthropomorphic Trout pictures in Palazzo dei Diamanti, helas, but a mountain landscape perhaps more sleak and timid by comparison but with such a masterly use of paint...

It was all breathtaking, a Wizard.

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