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.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

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.

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