Boudin Superbly Shifted Focus From Subjects to Their Natural Surroundings
Quick, think of your favorite paintings in which the human subjects have their backs to the viewer. Having trouble? Not surprising given that most painters want you to see the faces of their subjects—the glorious details of eye, mouth and brow—rather than their subjects’ backsides.
That’s one thing that sets French painter Eugène Boudin apart. He doesn’t mind showing you his subjects’ derrieres as long as you see what they are looking at—which is almost always a wind-whipped sea, the skies swirling above, and a golden expanse of beach supporting all those derrieres on wooden beach chairs.
Those derrieres and their accoutrements are in full view in the small but engaging “Eugène Boudin at the National Gallery of Art.” Created to honor the centenary of gallery benefactor-extraordinaire Paul Mellon, the two-room, 40-work exhibit draws on the gallery’s extensive Boudin collections—almost all donated by Mellon himself, a fan of the French landscape painter who influenced better-known impressionists such as Claude Monet.
There is a sense of expectation, of waiting, in many of these works. Spending his time in fashionable Normandy beach towns, Boudin documented the leisurely ways of the French nouveau riche. These people didn’t do much: They perch awkwardly on beach chairs while playing cards, stand in line to board an ocean-going steamer, and watch sailboats move in and out of the harbor—all with their backs toward us, of course.
One can be forgiven for thinking that Boudin, like many of his fellow impressionists, had something against urban life, with its busyness and bustle. He clearly preferred to watch the sea, the clouds—and to make us watch them too—and whatever stormy gust or distant shower was on the horizon.
“The Beach at Villerville” is typical of Boudin’s style. Men and women, some seated and others standing, engage in a beach party. Their figures are colorful, but incomplete—mere broad strokes and spots of gray, blue and brown. They are arranged in interesting compositions (a few even shown in profile), but what most catches our eye is not the people themselves, but the movement around their stillness—the spray on the women’s hats borne aloft in the wind, petticoats blown sideways, parasols dangling at a breezy angle. In the background, twilight is moving in above the sea. The human figures in this painting seem happily at ease with the natural world in which they are, for the time being at least, suspended.
Similar themes recur in “Beach Scene at Trouville,” in which a crowd of beachside onlookers watches sailboats moving in a bay, with the onlookers’ crinolines, dress hats and pennants waving in the breeze. Likewise, in “Jetty and Wharf at Trouville,” a crowd of figures (this time on a fishing pier) attends to a steamer, whose twin masts and belching smokestack are visible to the viewer. A dog inhabits the foreground, as in other Boudin paintings, but what’s different here is the attention to modernity. The smokestack and a tall gray lamppost share focus with the twin masts of the steamer, while black smoke spews out of the stack and across the picture itself.
It’s tempting to see this as Boudin’s commentary on how the privileged classes abuse nature, but then again, Boudin sold many small landscapes like this one to tourists desiring a memento of their holiday in the sun. Times apparently don’t change that much.
An intense interest in the atmospherics of light was something Boudin passed onto his younger colleague, Claude Monet. It was Boudin who promoted the plein air (outdoor) painting style that Monet would make world famous in his scenes of cathedrals, lily ponds and railway stations, where light and shadow dance a kind of heavenly pas de deux.
Similar atmospherics are in evidence in Boudin’s larger paintings, including “Coast of Brittany,” in which several tall sailing ships provide the context for a study in variations of light and color. Here, light bounces off the water’s foam, the hanging clouds, the far shoreline and the ships’ sails—but nowhere is it exactly the same, yet everywhere it is in movement. This seemingly simple composition belies the beauty of the various planes that inhabit the light: the horizontal fingers of shoreline, the aqua-colored sea, the drifting clouds above, and the single spike of the ship’s mast near the center of it all.
Similarly beautiful is the composition of “Entrance to the Harbor, Le Havre,” in which tall ships anchor the painting’s left and right bottom quadrants, while parallel planes of sea and sky seem to meet in the twilit distance. “Return of the Terre-Neuvier” takes us one step further. Here, the ship has been pulled right up to shore as its exotic cargo is being unloaded. Figures—almost post-impressionist in their anonymous physicality—sort through the cargo or observe the “catch.” These people are only daubs of paint, but the light reflected on their hats and clothing gives them a sense of action. Do they know the storm is on its way behind them? Can they unload all of the cargo in time?
Different, but equally interesting, is the series of graphite drawings created from 1860 to 1895 that comes near the end of this show. They illustrate Boudin’s interest in the lives of ordinary people—farm workers, washerwomen, etc.—who supported and probably thrived on the growing seaside tourist trade. Of these drawings, “Women on the Beach at Berck” and “Washerwomen on the Beach of Etretat” are probably the most accomplished.
In the former, a group of female workers huddles on the beach with their large baskets (it’s not clear if these hold laundry or catches from the sea), as the women enjoy a moment’s respite. Their bright red and blue dresses and white headscarves make a striking contrast with the blonde expanse of beach and almost violet sky surrounding them. The three standing figures lend an air of authority and dignity to the scene, so that we see these women not so much as anonymous workers, but as individuals whose labors are deserving of our respect.
“Washerwomen on the Beach of Etretat” is a much busier composition and in some ways similar to “Return of the Terre-Neuvier.” Both paintings feature a complicated foreground scene with an imposing background of several basic colors. Here, the foreground is dominated by an anonymous group of washerwomen bent over their cleaning, with a horizontal plane of ocean behind them and a vertical shaft of brown cliff sweeping up the left side of the picture.
As in so many other Boudin paintings, there are no faces to be seen, only myriad colors and the light dancing off them. The activity of the women does not seem nearly as important as the slant of the cliff or the advance and retreat of the ocean waves. In fact, the women are little more than an interesting color composition providing contrast for the pink hue of sky, the warm browns of the cliff, and the darker tones of the ocean behind them.
He wasn’t big on portraits, this much is clear. But as the exhibit illustrates, Boudin was very good at looking at nature, whether from the vantage point of a beach chair, a parasol or a group of people standing right in front of it.
Eugène Boudin through Aug. 5 National Gallery of Art East Building on the National Mall between 3rd and 9thStreets and Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.
About the Author
Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.