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Photograph - The Breaking Wave - Mediterranean Sea
  • The Breaking Wave - Mediterranean Sea
    Le Gray, Gustave, born 1820 - died 1884
  • Enlarge image

The Breaking Wave - Mediterranean Sea

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Europe (made)

  • Date:

    1857 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Le Gray, Gustave, born 1820 - died 1884 (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Albumen print from a collodion-on-glass negative

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Chauncey Hare Townshend

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 103, box A(1)

This photograph is one of Le Gray’s series of seascapes celebrated for capturing breaking waves and dramatic lighting conditions. This scene was taken on the French Mediterranean coast near the port of Sète. Le Gray was not the first to photograph breaking waves. Recent research has unearthed the startling possibility that he may have been the publisher, not the photographer, of some of the seascapes that bear his signature stamp. An article in the British Journal of Photography (1 August 1864) mentions: ‘Macaire’s instantaneous photographs of the sea that were published some years ago by Le Gray which so astonished the photographic world’. However, little is known about the photographer Cyrus Macaire to whom this article probably refers. The possibility that Le Gray acted as a publisher for other photographers is feasible. If true, the suggestion does not undermine his artistic judgement, high standards of printing and entrepreneurial skill. Some experts, however, do not subscribe to the idea that Le Gray was a publisher, and opinion is currently divided.

Collodion-on-glass negatives were introduced in 1851. Le Gray adopted them in preference to paper negatives to achieve maximum sharpness coupled with even faster exposure times. The glass plate was covered with a solution of ether and guncotton (cotton steeped in nitric and sulphuric acids). It was then sensitised. The negative had to be exposed in the camera while still wet and developed immediately afterwards.

Most of the V&A’s fine group of Le Gray seascapes came to the Museum in 1868 as part of the bequest of the millionaire art collector Chauncy Hare Townshend. He had kept them in portfolios along with his watercolours, etchings and engravings. They have therefore remained in excellent condition, preserved to museum standards almost since they were made.

Physical description


Place of Origin

Europe (made)


1857 (made)


Le Gray, Gustave, born 1820 - died 1884 (photographer)

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from a collodion-on-glass negative


Height: 41.7 cm image, Width: 32.5 cm image, Height: 450 mm sheet, Width: 357 mm sheet

Descriptive line

Le Gray, Gustave. "The Broken Wave, Sete", 1856-9. Albumen print from wet collodion on glass negative. (Townshend Bequest)

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Simon Kelly and April M. Watson ; with Maura Coughlin and Neil McWilliam, Impressionist France : visions of nation from Le Gray to Monet, St. Louis : Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, c2013. ISBN: 9780300196955.
p. 274
Storie dell'Impressionismo : I grandi protagonisti da Monet a Renoir da Van Gogh a Gauguin / a cura di Marco Goldin. Treviso : Linea d'ombra, [2016] 9788889902349
p. 300



Subjects depicted

Waves; Yacht; Seascape




Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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