`Appreciate the Sea, Light, the Sky'
EUGENE BOUDIN (1824-1898) is one of those artists who has the slight misfortune always to be mentioned in connection with another artist with a far wider reputation. That other artist is the French Impressionist Claude Monet.
"I haven't forgotten," Monet wrote to Boudin from Giverny in 1892, "that you were the first to teach me to see and understand."
And later - in 1920 - writing to his friend Gustave Geffroy, Monet made a longer tribute to the older painter (he called him his "master") whom he had first met at Le Havre when he was about 15. At that time, Monet was "struggling to earn a reputation as a caricaturist." Monet admits to not appreciating Boudin's paintings at first, because Monet was still influenced by "academic theories."
He goes on: "One day, Boudin said to me: `You're talented, you should drop this kind of work, which you'll tire of sooner or later. Your sketches are excellent, you're not going to leave it at that. Do what I do, learn to draw well and appreciate the sea, light, the blue sky.' I took his advice and together we went on long outings during which I painted constantly from nature. That was how I came to understand nature and learnt to love it passionately and how I became interested in the high-keyed paintin g of Boudin."
Boudin, as a young man, had received similar encouragement to take up painting seriously from other artists. At that time, he was still part-owner of a stationery and picture-framing shop in Le Havre, though he seems to have had an independence of attitude that quickly made him realize that painting was his vocation and that his intense love of the places where the sea meets the land in northern France had to be the subject of his art.
His father was a sailor. Boudin's experience of the sea, however, was turned into movement of paint on board or canvas, and it was observed from dry land. Although his later works often seem lonely and rather devoid of human beings, he was typically a painter of people on the shore - either fashionable holidaymakers or, at the opposite end of the social scale, the indigenous people, such as local washerwomen, whose lives went on much as before in spite of increasing invasions of outsiders.
The beaches of Normandy, Trouville, and Deauville were Boudin's favorite painting grounds, though he never confined his activity to these places. An exhibition called "Boudin at Trouville" at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow through Feb. 28, the first show in Britain exclusively devoted to Boudin, demonstrates how much of his work came from observation of this seaside resort, but it also reveals something of his wider interests. He painted the life of the ports: the fishing boats, the market places, and
the women washing.
But he did not paint these women with romantic nostalgia or folksy prettification. "Washerwomen on the Banks of the River Touques" (near Trouville) has the free brushwork of Manet, and the matter-of-fact descriptiveness of tough female labor found in Degas.
Monet's observation that Boudin's paintings were not academic is to the point. Boudin basically taught himself to paint, although he had gone to Paris in 1847, avowedly for the purpose of learning. He did not, however, enroll in the studio of one of the Parisian masters, where he would certainly have been taught the sort of academic principles, either Romantic or Classical, favored by the art establishment and sanctioned by the kind of work selected for the annual Paris Salon. Historical, narrative, or t raditional genre painting - each of them categories of academic art - Boudin passed by.
Instead, he made copies at the Louvre (of among other things, Dutch 17th-century landscapes, which his own mature work was certainly influenced by), spent a lot of time "observing," and got to know other artists. This attitude in itself was somewhat unconventional. But it was to develop into an attitude toward Paris that was above all pragmatic: This was the place he spent the winter months, finishing in his studio the paintings that he had made - as on those expeditions described by Monet - in the open air, directly from the motif.
His best work, which evinces surprising variety within what at first might seem a narrow range of subjects, has the fresh sensation of an encounter with sea breeze, salt in the air, momentary effects of sunlight and forever-moving waves, and, more than anything, the sky.
The sky dominates as the source of light, air, and space. It changes from one painting to another with considerable subtlety, never a formula, always observed. Boudin can make the sky seem to arch over the head of the viewer in ways that few landscape painters have ever achieved. It is the indicator of predominant mood and present or impending weather. It is a northern sky, rather than some unaltering, relentless Mediterranean blue. In one painting, it is sunny, and white clouds gather to make a play of shadow; in another, darker clouds accumulate - a storm is brewing. Sometimes, a sunset glows over promenaders along the beach; or fluffs of white scud across the sky, the incoming waves are getting choppy, and wind threatens the sudden dislodgement of fashionable hats. One of Boudin's delightful observations was of the similarity between crinolines caught in boisterous wind and the sails of boats similarly gusted.
These cannily depicted encounters between the elements and the sartorial pretensions of human beings are a symbol of art encountering nature, of the artist working in the great outdoors. Just as it was impossible for the ladies who extravagantly imitated the fashionable dress of the Empress Eugenie to be entirely elegant or perfectly unflustered in the face of a stiff wind at the end of a jetty, so it must have been stimulatingly impossible for a painter like Boudin to be finicky and intricate in his pla cing of paint or his drawing of figures.
Not that Boudin was careless in his details. But he wrote in one of his notebooks: "Do not be afraid of broad effects in the sky and on the sea, tackle them in all their variety and power without worrying about conventions." He is frequently quoted for writing: "Everything that is painted directly and on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vivacity of touch which one cannot recover in the studio." Nevertheless, he took very seriously the need to carry a painting beyond the mere sketch - while, par adoxically, trying to keep in it the spontaneity, haste, movement, and freedom of touch that working outdoors made impossible to avoid.
John House, in an essay called "Boudin's Modernity," points out that this dichotomy of sketch and finished painting (which had so preoccupied the English landscape painter John Constable) was typical of the period. He observes: "Boudin's explorations of the problematic relationship between artistic convention and direct experience in painting were very characteristic of French painting around 1860."
In all the time Boudin spent in Paris, he never painted a single view of that city. He painted the bourgeoisie sitting or walking on the beaches, but he never painted them in the city. Indeed, it is not impossible to suspect that there is a certain humor in his observations of city folk parading themselves at Trouville, though it never amounts to caricature. Did he believe their urban dress had a touch of absurdity about it in such an exposed, natural place?
Paris was his marketplace, however. He exhibited his work at the Salon and tried other avenues for selling it. In the end, after feeding his paintings to half a dozen Parisian art dealers from the 1860s on, Boudin was taken up in 1881 by Paul Durand-Ruel, who was buying the work of Impressionists, and given his first one-man show in 1883. Paris also prevented him from becoming an out-of-touch, provincial artist, unchallenged by the clash and change of new art at the center. Although he never claimed to be a "great artist," and generally worked on a modestly small scale, he was a persistent experimenter, self-critical, dissatisfied with his achievements, trying new methods.
Prolific in his painting, Boudin produced over 4,000 paintings and 7,000 works on paper - watercolors, drawings, pastels - in a career lasting a little more than 50 years. He described himself as a "loner, a daydreamer who has been content to remain in his part of the world and look at the sky. The future will treat me as it does all of us. I am very much afraid it may be oblivion." He was wrong about that; and maybe he was wrong, too, to be quite so modest about his work.
Boudin is not just a key figure in the history of Impressionism and in the development of Monet. His own work stands up well with its mixture of vigor and finesse, immediacy and consideration.