Eugène Boudin (French, 1824-1898) Trouville, scène de plage

Sea change

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 12

Sea change

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 12

Sea change

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 12

Going to the beach was a ritual for the newly mobile bourgeoisie. And Boudin's paintings coolly observe it, writes Jonathan Jones

Eugène Boudin's 1885 painting Trouville, scène de plage takes us to the heart of a revolution. Its radicalism can be discerned in raw, fast brushwork that leaves everything just barely touched into existence, so that faces are eyeless brown ovals, a skirt is a white smear and the sand of Trouville beach a seething bisque. The sea and sky can only just be distinguished from one another, two layers of milky white in which blobs of ships are adventuring.

Women and girls are gathered on this windy Normandy beach, ruled over by black-clad matriarchs who sit on stiff wooden chairs under grim umbrellas. Younger members of the party rest casually on the sand. But no one is going in the sea, or taking off any clothes. Perhaps that is just as well, as they are being watched.Their watcher, and the invisible character in this painting, is Boudin himself. As the women enjoy the beach in their stately fashion, he is working furiously. His quick dabs of color must capture this moment, here, now. He stands back from the scene, at his easel, seeing these people as blurs of color, eyeless faces, flashes of red, black, blue. The sketchiness of the picture is its meaning. For this painting declares, in its modest way, what art must be. Art must be truthful, immediate and fresh. It must be spontaneous and fast as life. How can a painting achieve all that? By being painted, as this one declares itself to be, in the open air, in the sea breeze, with salt getting in the colours.

By 1885, this great idea that painting should be an immediate, unplanned portrayal of real life, ideally caught in the open on a kind of optical safari, had already been made famous by the Impressionists. But it was still a radical truth that had yet to reveal its most extreme implications. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh would be letting his soul fill with yellows in the fields of Provence. In the 1900s, Matisse would be seeing electric fantasies of color at Collioure, and Picasso contemplating the crystalline forms of a brick factory at Tortosa. Modern art would be born out of the same rough looking that Boudin practises here.

If it was still a revolutionary force, plein air painting was no novelty for Boudin when he painted this scene. But if it was by that time a honed weapon of advanced art, it was a kind of secret when he first took his paints out on to the sands at Trouville.

There is a majestic innocence to 19th century art. The workmanlike and the revolutionary go hand in hand. Ideas destined to change the world are adumbrated in paintings like those of Boudin in a wonderfully easygoing way. For Boudin simply painted his local world, in a way that happened to come naturally to him. He was born in 1824 in the old Norman port of Honfleur, today a tourist town, its quaint harbor crowded with seafood restaurants. The Norman coast was commercialized in his lifetime, as the local beaches became fashionable. In the mid-1860s, he painted Princess Pauline Metternich, a trend-setting celebrity, gracing the beach, her crinoline crisp in the breeze. This was seaside style before bodies were bared, and before the southern sun made the Mediterranean the place to be.

Boudin's father was a sailor who had retired from the sea to open a picture-framing shop in Le Havre. Eugène went into the framing business for himself, but his talent for painting was recognized by artists who happened to come into the shop, not least the great rural visionary Jean-François Millet. Boudin was inspired by his mentors not only to paint, but to paint in the open.

Painting amid the elements is not a style. It is a discipline that can have wildly different results for different artists. The British painters John Constable, J. M. W. Turner and Richard Parkes Bonington had popularized the painting of fresh cloudscapes and seas and shores in the Romantic age, building on an oil sketch tradition already well-established by 1800. British Victorian art, however, retreated into the minute fussiness of Pre-Raphaelite picture-building. It was the French painters who took up the challenge of spontaneity. Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny and Courbet all painted the freshness, immediacy, and transience of nature.

What Boudin brought to this adventure was an eye salted by a youth surrounded by boats and sea stories. His Honfleur heritage made him look at the sea without a shred of romanticism. This paradoxically equipped him to see the fascination of leisurely beach scenes. Free from any Turneresque desire to be lashed to the mast in a storm, he concentrated on the matter-of-fact world of the new middle-class seaside. By the 1850s, he was painting in the open air on the Normany shore. His paintings return again and again to groups of fully-clad bourgeois folk elegantly enjoying the sands of Trouville. Each is the same and yet different: the observation from life is unmistakable.

What is the same, therefore, is not a set motif imported by the open-eyed Boudin, but leisure itself – and here his art becomes unsettling social commentary. Going to the beach, by the mid-19th century, had become a ritual of a new world moneyed by capitalism and mobilized by railways. Boudin's paintings coolly observe it. The groups sketched in Boudin's Bathers on the Beach at Trouville in 1869, or his Beach Scene, Trouville of the 1860s, or his 1873 Beach Scene, Trouville are all different, all painted from life – and yet all of a type, like mussel shells or seagulls.

Their similarity conveys the repetitiveness of pleasure itself. All happy families are the same, said Tolstoy. All happy days on the beach are the same, too. The seaside invented a standardized, stereotypical way to escape the everyday. Boudin made that his endlessly varying yet strangely eternal theme. In the open air, in the spontaneous, he finds the charm of the predictable. It is plainly a great theme, as well as a vivid way of working, this painting people on the beach.

Boudin passed it on to one of modern art's giants. In about 1856, he met the teenaged genius Claude Monet, who lived in Le Havre. Looking at Monet's caricatures of local types, Boudin told him to try painting in the open air. Together they stomped the beaches of Normandy. Monet acknowledged Boudin as a fundamental influence. They stayed friends and went on painting side by side. Boudin's wife is probably the woman in black in Monet's 1870 painting The Beach at Trouville.

Even if Eugène Boudin's only achievement were to have launched Monet on his way, this would be important. But his pioneering and courageous art has a lot more to it than just egging on Impressionism's most seductive master. Boudin looks at his world with untiring clarity.

He watches the pleasure seekers come and go. What do they expect to find on the beach, wonders this man of the sea? What revelation of peace, happiness, togetherness and freedom can they think will come to them from that bland sky and wan water?

The black-clad matrons have journeyed here to sit on their chairs, for a certain time, with a certain expectation. When they have packed up and left, the sea will go on making waves, the clouds will continue circling the void. Boudin will pack up his paints and walk away across the sands. Art has no more answers than the elements themselves. It is only an eye that sees all.

Jonathan Jones writes about art for The Guardian.

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