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.
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.
Indeed, the rendering of the ocean itself (actually the English Channel or, in French, "La Manche") underwent an extraordinary transformation. Before the Impressionists discovered it, this area of ocean was often painted as a turbulent, threatening force of nature. The frequently cloudy skies and rough seas of the region were depicted in dark colors. "The Sea at Étretat" (1853) by Johan Barthold Jongkind is of deserted rowboats on a bleakly brownish coast.
But employing the lightened palette of Impressionism, painters such as Monet and Manet frequently painted the ocean under sunny skies in a rainbow of pastel shades – from blue to turquoise to green to lavender – but rarely in the grays and browns of the serious ocean of the past.
"The Beach at Trouville" (1870) by Monet (pictured here) shows a royal-blue seacoast in fair weather built up with hotels and villas that sprang up to accommodate tourists. A gentleman escorts a fashionable lady with a parasol. In "Regatta at Saint-Adresse" (1867), also by Monet, a sunny sea is painted in tones of almost tropical aqua.
But this trend of Impressionists painting tourists on the beach was not to last. In 1869, the writer Henry Blackburn referred to the "burden of extravagance" borne by this Parisian holiday crowd obsessed by fashion and luxury.
There came a point where Monet had had enough of it. By the 1880s, he had moved on, seeking places in the region where he could paint rock formations and the many moods of the ocean in peace. In canvases like "Étretat, Rainy Weather" (1885), Monet painted the Normandy coast in stormy weather, without a single tourist bearing the burdens of extravagance in sight.
• The exhibition will be at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., until Jan. 13, 2008. It will then be at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., Feb. 9–May 11, 2008.