Models of Étretat


Gustave Courbet painted the Cliffs of Étretat in 1870, but other artists also painted the cliffs (Vasily Polenov in 1874 and Claude Monet in 1883). Let's put on our modeling hats and dive in. But before we do, let me give you a sense of "model." A model is a representation of something else. In art, the word maquette (French for scale model) is frequently employed. In science and engineering, we say "scale model."  So, you could make a scale model of the cliffs with plaster of Paris or a 3D printer. You might also create a virtual 3D model with a program such as Maya or Blender. You could also create a conceptual model of the cliffs in the form of a concept map. A concept map is a visual network diagram that also goes by other names: mind map and semantic network. These types of models are information or knowledge models. But an even more critical part of analyzing this painting is to consider the painting as a system. A system is a large set of components that can be subdivided into other components. A systems thinking approach to viewing the Cliffs of Étretat usually involves a set of diagrams that capture how the system works. The cliffs were created through erosion. How, and when, did this erosion occur? The boats were built. How, and by whom? What was the process used in boat building in the late 19th century? The sky indicates a cloud pattern. What sort of weather process creates this pattern? How can a simulation model be constructed for the waves crashing on the beach? What is a dynamic, temporal model to re-create the sound of waves? Do the waves sound different in this location in France? What process was used by the artist to create the pigments? The paint is part of a larger system involving mining and chemistry. This type of thinking is similar to what Bonnie Pitman, Cassini Nazir, and I focused on with Models of X.  Thinking in models and systems reaches across disciplinary boundaries and so we need to create people networks, since being a a generalist requires coordination with specialists. Thinking of the world in terms of complex systems involving interacting components is critical to our society. Consider climate change and improving health by battling disease. Generalists, modelers, systems thinkers, and specialists need to work together. I'd like to think that Gustave would have approved.