- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

“Life’s a beach” is a slogan that might have been coined by Eugene Boudin (1824-1898), who almost exclusively painted vacationers at the seaside. His tourists are all dressed up, but they still manage to capture the relaxing feeling of strolling along the sand and gazing at the ocean in the company of children and dogs.

Without having seen his original paintings, it is easy to dismiss his proto-impressionist scenes at water’s edge as lighthearted and inconsequential. However, a small exhibit opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art reveals that this artist took life at the beach seriously, using it as an opportunity to explore new ways of representing light, water and atmosphere, and set a modern course for art.

It has been more than three decades since a retrospective of Boudin’s work has been held in this country, and this show disappoints only in its size: Just 42 works are displayed, and half of them are pencil sketches and preparatory watercolors. All are drawn from the National Gallery’s collection, mainly from works donated by museum trustee Paul Mellon, whose legacy is being honored with this exhibit and other events throughout 2007, the centenary of his birth.

It’s easy to see why Mr. Mellon counted Boudin among his favorite artists. The American philanthropist must have related to the artist’s depictions of affluent ladies and gentlemen socializing around open-air casinos and rolling beach cabanas. Look closer, though, and the beach-goers turn out to be faceless, often with their backs to the viewer. The mood is more wistful than jovial, a contemplation of nature, not a celebration of spring break. One is reminded of the sea-gazing girls painted by the younger Winslow Homer, whose works Mr. Mellon also collected.

Boudin was interested less in portraying individuals than in using the crowd as a compositional tool to focus attention on the bands of sand and sea that divide his paintings and the big skies that dominate everything else. He often would sketch small clusters of vacationers, as in the charming watercolor “A Couple Seated on the Beach With Two Dogs” (1865) and then regroup them into paintings.

“The Beach at Villerville” (1864) shows how the artist arranged sitting and standing figures to create rhythmic shapes that draw the eye across the canvas and to the cloudy sky overhead. Sometimes his depictions of people seem like excuses to play with color and form, as in the red-skirted “Women on the Beach at Berck” (1881) and punctuating black parasols in “The Beach” (1877).

The exhibit reveals that Boudin wasn’t always comfortable depicting society people at play, even though they were the very ones who could afford to buy his work. “One … feels a certain shame at painting their idle laziness,” he wrote in 1867.

The artist also captured scenes of the working waterfront that fueled the local economy, in which his brushwork is often freer. In a late painting of washerwomen on the beach, the figures are so blurry as almost to resemble rocks.

Boudin’s continuing exploration of technique is more obvious in his tourist-free paintings. Foamy sea and layered rocks in “Coast of Brittany” (1870) recall Courbet’s impasto effects. Masts and smokestacks in the tiny “The Trawlers” (1885) create an almost abstract play of line and shape.

The artist gained his love of the sea at an early age, working as a cabin boy aboard a steamer. When he was 11, his family moved to the Norman port of Le Havre, where his seafaring father shifted into selling picture frames and stationery. The young Boudin met artists working in the area and moved to Paris in 1850 to pursue painting. He regularly exhibited his works at the state-sponsored Salons, where his talents drew praise from critics Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola.

Boudin regularly traveled to the resort towns of Trouville and Deauville in Normandy to sketch outdoors, then back in Paris turned his studies into finished canvases. His knack for capturing the heavens’ sublime variations — clouds, sea breezes, sunsets, rain squalls — led artist Camille Corot to call him “the king of the skies.” Landscapes painted by Dutch and English artists influenced his atmospheric scenes; one 1858 sketch here of a river lock and farmyard recalls the work of John Constable.

Boudin created larger, showier canvases of ship-filled harbors, many painted in the 1880s, to impress the Salon and potential buyers. “Ship and Sailing Boats Leaving Le Havre” (1887) is filled with choppy waters and structured clouds reflective of the artist’s attentiveness to maritime fluctuations. In one section, waves lap the hull of a keeling boat filled with sailors, recalling Homer’s “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)” from the 1870s.

Boudin’s dedication to painting from nature inspired others to follow. His star pupil was Claude Monet, who had been drawing caricatures in the 1850s until the older artist invited him along on an oceanfront sketching trip. Their friendship would continue over decades; Monet invited his teacher to participate in the first impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Though he shared their interest in shifting weather and light, Boudin never completely loosened up to daub and dash in the manner of Monet. His is a more conservative outlook, even in the late work “Yacht Basin at Trouville-Deauville” (1895-96) with its flags of stroked-on bright colors.

His best work is his most intimate, the small canvases that reflect familiarity with life at the beach. This constant theme throughout his career enabled the steadfast artist to explore the visual language needed to express coastal conditions and, by example, lead impressionists to develop their own vocabularies. As Monet remarked, “If I have became a painter, I owe it to Boudin.”

WHAT: “Eugene Boudin”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow through Aug. 5; Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.


PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov/exhibitions/boudininfo.htm

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