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By the sea was the place to be

In mid-19th-century France, tourists flocked to the seaside in Normandy, lured, in part, by artists' romantic renderings of the coastal landscape.

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The vision of fashionable Parisians promenading along Normandy beaches under picturesque parasols and an azure sky is one of French Impressionism's most beloved subjects.

But before the mid-19th century, there were no tourists in Normandy, and the concept of the fashionable seaside holiday did not exist in the region. In fact, it was mainly artists and serious writers – not advertising brochures or billboards – who created the lure of the coast, providing the impetus that resulted in a tourist boom.

From about 1825, Paris galleries displayed paintings by artists such as Eugène Isabey that created a romanticized image of the region, which convinced Parisians that they should want to be beside the seaside.

Flock to the sea, they did, especially when a railway linked the area to Paris beginning in 1848. Soon a beach culture formed, turning towns such as Trouville and Deauville into the Martha's Vineyard and Malibu of their day.

Eugène Boudin can be credited with creating the first paintings of this milieu. But by the late 1860s, Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Édouard Manet were recording the new wave of beautiful people seeing and being seen on beaches that a few years before had been home only to rustic fishermen.

A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., explores this influence of high art on society: how painters created and influenced a social trend leading to important change and economic development of an entire region of France. "Impressionists by the Sea" consists of more than 60 paintings by such artists as Eugène Isabey and Boudin, as well as Impressionists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Monet, and Manet, who depicted the Normandy coast in various guises from its original pristine wildness to that of Paris-by-the-sea.


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