Great Works: The Beach at Trouville, 1875 (12.5cm x 24.5cm), Eugène Boudin

The Courtauld Institute of Art, London

The beaches of Normandy have suffered various terrible incursions from time to time. The one that we are a witness to in this painting, which dates from the second half of the 19th century, is of a relatively benign kind. It is always of vital importance how far away we position ourselves when scrutinising a two-dimensional object on a wall. Think of some of the huge portraits by the American painter Chuck Close, for example. In order to enjoy his portraits, we need to be a goodly distance away from them. The closer we approach, the more they are inclined to dissolve or disperse into an unreadable frenzy of very calculated, and seemingly almost formulaic, mark-making. As we walk towards them, they begin to disappoint us.

Today's painting, so modest in size – it is a narrow thing whose shape seems to fit perfectly its subject matter – hangs in the top-floor gallery that overlooks the gorgeous, scalloped staircase at the Courtauld Institute in London, among other French paintings, many of them landscapes too, of a roughly similar size. In this case, we need to be at least two feet away – not much more than that – in order to appreciate that it is partially dependent for its success upon the fact that it is edging towards abstraction. That is exactly the effect that Boudin wants to achieve. He doesn't want us to home in on details that would explicate its meaning too readily, that would tell us exactly what is what and where and why. What is to be seen here, in all its slightly tantalising vagueness, needs to be just a touch exotically beyond our reach.

What also needs to be pointed out immediately – and this fact is not immediately evident – is that it is a very amusing painting. The fact is that Boudin, who regularly painted the Normandy coast during these decades (as did his more famous friend, Claude Monet) is drawing our attention here to a strange species of – avian? – invader, a type which would have been wholly unfamiliar to earlier generations.

This species of invader began to visit these shores, generally during the summer months, at the end of the third decade of the 19th century. The marvels of technological advance made it possible. These invaders, who generally travelled in some style along with their enormous retinue of poorly paid pamperers, came from the heart of Paris by steam locomotive. They were the haute bourgeoisie who, thanks to the railways, were coming here to enjoy the delights of the seaside experience for the very first time.

As Boudin makes clear to us, they were utterly different in almost every way from the usual inhabitants of these parts. The fishermen and their fisherwives would have gaped at them in wonder, asking themselves why such people were here, and what form of livelihood they could expect to gain by merely standing and laughing and staring. What are they doing here in such clothes? Yes, they are all settled, huddled as if for mutual protection, on this beach, like a huge flock of exotic wild fowl, brilliantly bedecked in plumage and other forms of finery. We notice that they are tonally similar to each other. This is clearly a form of camouflage to deter or to confuse the raging, circling predators, of which – who knows? – there may be many. There is only one tiny splash of colour amidst the greys, the muted blues, the blacks, the creams, the beiges in this painting, and we fear that it may be too dangerously demonstrative for its own good.

What is more, the element of camouflage extends to the sea and the shoreline and the very sky above their heads. Everything gently and mistily melds and merges into everything else. We cannot see very clearly where the shore line ends. We do not know exactly where the sea begins. We cannot register where the horizon line finishes and where the sky starts to make its mark. Everything flows into everything else like a sweetly musical fantasia.

The entire tiny universe of this painting is of a piece. These exotics are not here to enjoy the delights of bathing. They are here to look at the sea, and to be seen doing so in each other's company. And yet that is not exactly the case either. Some appear to be looking seaward, while others do not. Yet others are addressing each other. This is merely a pretty, and perhaps a blustery, context for an extended causerie of the kind that could just as easily have taken place in a drawing room. So they have brought their own identities here, these exotics. They are who they are no matter where they happen to be. And here they are beside the sea for their entertainment. But the sea is a mere adjunct to their activities, a pleasurable context, we feel. They are not about to engage with the sea or to profit much by its commanding presence here.

Although these boundless waters are in evidence, they are fairly tangential really. Meddling with them at all would be inconceivable. There is no hint that such a thing is about to happen. There is too much self absorption about this grouping for such speculations. To step in to these dangerous waters would be one step too far. A boat would be out of the question. It would be far beyond the strictly circumscribed bounds of their definition of leisure. It would also cause ruination of their fine footwear, and risk staining irretrievably the lower reaches of their abundant costuming. But are they not hot? Don't address me with a question of such impertinence.


Eugène Boudin (1824-1898), a forerunner of Impressionism, was born and brought up in Le Havre. A painter of sea, sky and fishing boats, he was also fascinated by those exotic and overdressed species who flocked to the seaside from far flung parts to savour the ever shifting ocean's strange delights. As with the Impressionists, he was quite besotted by the effects of light.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk