Listening to Art

04.02: Gustave Courbet, The Cliffs at Étretat

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume four, number two: The Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

This is the first in a series of recordings of works by Gustave Courbet, the French realist who lived from 1819 to 1877.

Ernst Gombrich describes Courbet in The Story of Art (p. 511):

He wanted his pictures to be a protest against the accepted conventions of his day, to “shock the bourgeois” out of his complacency, and to proclaim the value of uncompromising artistic sincerity as against the deft handling of traditional clichés. Sincere Courbet’s pictures undoubtedly are. “I hope,” he wrote in a characteristic letter in 1854, “always to earn my living by my art without having ever deviated even by a hair’s breadth from my principles, without having lied to my conscience for a single moment, without painting even as much as can be covered by a hand only to please anyone or sell more easily.” Courbet’s deliberate renunciation of easy effects, and his determination to render the world as he saw it, encouraged many others to flout convention and to follow nothing but their own artistic conscience.

The painting we’ll listen to was done in the late 1860s, but to further introduce Courbet I quote from Jack Lindsay’s Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art (pp. 55–56). Here he describes what Courbet’s friend Francis Wey reported about what Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, both older and established painters, said about Courbet when he made his name with several major works at the 1849 Paris Salon:

Then, in the Tuileries, from which the king had fled and which was used this year for the exhibition, Wey met Delacroix, who took him by the arm and showed him the Afterdinner, remarking with his usual vivacity, “Have you ever seen anything like it, anything so strong, with no dependence on anyone else? There’s an innovator, a revolutionary too; he bursts out all of a sudden, without precedent; he’s unknown.”

Then as Delacroix went off, Wey saw Ingres come up. He was less responsive. “How does it come about,” he cried, “that nature herself ruins her finest creations? She has endowed this young man with the rarest gifts. Born with qualities that so many others so rarely acquire, he possesses them full-grown at his first brush-stroke. This prelude throws out with a sort of bravado a work that’s masterly in the most difficult aspects; the rest, which is art, totally evades him. He has given nothing of himself and he has received everything. What lost values! what sacrificed gifts! Is that remarkable and depressing enough? Nothing as composition, nothing as drawing; exaggerations, almost a parody. This fellow is an eye; he sees, with a perception very distinctly his own, into a harmony of which the tonality is a convention, realities so homogeneous in themselves that he improvises a nature more energetic in appearance than the truth is, and what he presents is, as artistic talent, of a perfect nullity. This new revolutionary will be a dangerous example.”

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 113.3 cm wide by 90.9 cm high.

Now let’s listen to The Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet, recorded at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, on 24 August 2017.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was The Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Gombrich, Ernst. The Story of Art. 15th ed. London: Phaidon, 1995.

Lindsay, Jack. Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art. Bath, UK: Adams and Dart, 1973.

National Gallery of Canada. “The Cliffs at Étretat.” National Gallery of Canada.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Gustave Courbet,”