Life's a beach: Boudin was, well, a bit on the dull side, but his paintings were wild and beautiful. Dalya Alberge on the not-very-interesting life and brilliant work of a man possessed

Dalya Alberge
Tuesday 09 February 1993 00:02

He didn't have the manic depression of Van Gogh, the thuggish tendencies of Caravaggio or the murderous madness of Richard Dadd. Not only was Eugene Boudin (1824-1898) free of the tortured or violent passions that we expect in our great masters, but nothing remotely memorable ever really happened to him.

There is nothing about the man himself that would bring him to life in Hollywood's or the wider public's imagination. He was married, happily, and there is not the merest hint of impropriety in his life, let alone the kind of philandering indulged in by, say, Rodin.

For Whistler and Jongkind, who joined him in Trouville, on the Normandy coast, Boudin the man was, well, kind of on the dull side. They went down to the casino and the beach together but, unlike Boudin, they were not interested only in painting them. They took a dip in the water and had a flutter at gambling. Not Boudin. He wanted only to take in and paint the air, the light, the sea, the sky along the Normandy coast - a coast to which so many artists, from Turner to Monet, repeatedly returned. His single-minded devotion to his art left posterity as many as 7,000 watercolours, drawings and pastels, and 4,000 paintings. When he was accused of being over-productive, Boudin mused, 'I could work less, but then what would I do in between?'

'I am a loner,' he said, '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.' When a critic asked him for biographical details, the most imaginative thing Boudin could come up with was that he had 'done various series of seascapes in different genres, beaches which demonstrated if not great art at least a reasonably faithful reproduction of the people of our age'. Boring as he made himself sound, and boring as he undoubtedly was, Boudin was a modest man.

Although it is ironic that the man who inspired the Impressionists has in the more popular eye been overshadowed by them, history could never quite neglect an artist who could so gloriously bathe his studies of the sea and sky in light shed from his palette. He could catch the way light falls on shimmering water and bounces off wet rocks, capture the transitory effects of the weather and the subtle nuances of colour in shifting mists and moving clouds. For Boudin - whom Corot called the 'king of skies' - the sky was dominant; like the Dutch Old Masters, Boudin allowed his sky to take up two-thirds of a painting.

Although there are relatively few publications devoted entirely to him, Boudin is represented in public collections worldwide, notably at Honfleur, Le Havre and Washington. Paul Mellon, no less, is among his most passionate collectors.

Following a major Boudin exhibition at Honfleur last year, a show of 78 works is at the Glasgow Burrell Collection this month, curated by Vivien Hamilton; a condensed version of it, reduced to about 40 works, transfers to London's Courtauld Institute in March.

The theme is Trouville - the boatyards, the fish market, the washerwomen on the banks of the River Touques, holidaymakers on the beaches and the jetty - to which, Hamilton has discovered, Boudin returned every single year for nearly 40 years, from 1861 until his death in 1898. Boudin rarely left the Normandy coast. Even when he was away from it, he went in search of subjects that he could have painted back there.

When Boudin first went to Trouville, nine miles south of Honfleur, it was no longer a sleepy fishing-village but a bustling seaside resort for the Parisian aristocracy and fashionable society. Writers such as Dumas and Flaubert also came. Such was the popularity of Trouville that the holidaymakers soon spread out to adjoining Deauville on the opposite bank of the River Touques.

They have stayed ever since. At least the central parts of Trouville and Deauville have remained relatively unchanged since Boudin's day. Indeed, you can still tell where he painted most of his works. Although women no longer bathe in woollen suits and oilcloth bonnets that made them look, as one contemporary wrote, 'like a group of monkeys suffering from ringworm' (perhaps that's why Boudin painted few bathers), and crinolined ladies with hoopskirts and parasols no longer stroll along the beach, the view is as Boudin saw it.

The beach is still as wide a stretch of sand as in his paintings. Bathing- huts, not dissimilar to the ones with which he created almost abstract shapes in his compositions - are still dotted along the seafront. The 19th- century ones were, however, on wheels, designed to be horse-drawn right into the water, protecting the bathers' modesty.

Le Promenade des Planches, the famous long promenade of wooden planks along which elegant ladies and gentlemen went to see and be seen - and where Boudin probably set up his easel - is still there. Indeed, fashionable holidaymakers still promenade up and down there, lounging in the cafes that line the beachfront in Deauville: in high season, or during the Deauville film festival, you have to be quick to get a table.

Boudin was one of the first artists to paint outside the studio, directly from nature, and to paint bourgeois society on holiday. But he tended not to be interested in individuals. He groups figures together - gossiping, reading, strolling leisurely. He rarely gives them facial features, often depicting them from behind, huddled together or leaning over to one another, engrossed in conversation. Indeed, in the later works, he sometimes suggests figures with no more than the slightest brushstrokes in his broad panoramas. He was more interested in the shapes created by their costumes, their movement in a blustery breeze, with ribbons blowing and flags fluttering in the wind. Flecks of bright paint define a tilted bonnet or a top hat.

Hamilton suggests that he had a love-hate relationship with these holidaymakers; that he had a greater affinity with the washerwomen he painted along the river than with high society. But hate is not a passion one connects with him. Even though Boudin once admitted to a 'certain shame' in painting 'laziness'; on another occasion, he said moderately 'there may be a few parasites among them, but they are also people who have done their jobs'.

The jetties, which he painted over a period of some 20 years with promenaders holding on to their hats as they watched the steamers and vessels, are there - though rebuilt in the 19th- century style since they were bombed in the war. Boudin's paintings of jetties, at low and high tide, are, as Hamilton points out, an extension of his beach scenes - 'the vast expanse of cloudy sky and a low horizon, groups of fashionably-dressed figures . . .' The wooden fish market, rebuilt in 1935, today looks on to a car park. But if you turn your back on that, the crescent of houses opposite is straight out of his painting. It was here that Boudin joined the fishermen and holidaymakers and saw the challenge of painting crowds. His watercolour of the interior of the market does just that and yet, through the free brushstrokes, the composition becomes almost abstract.

Many of the villas he knew still stand - among them, Boudin's modest house in Deauville, a pebble's throw from the beach, though its view is today blocked. Also, the beachfront house in several of his paintings is still there. But Boudin would not recognise the timbered holiday homes next to it and elsewhere in both Trouville and Deauville. They were built in the 1930s. Trouville is a working town to Deauville's resort, but it became so even in Boudin's day. Deauville, more chi-chi than Trouville, is today the fashionable watering-hole.

Although the Trouville casino of Boudin's paintings has been rebuilt in a different style, Boudin knew the one in Deauville, with its frothy, creme chantilly-like exterior. In fact, Trouville and Deauville are so little changed that Boudin could carry on where he left off.

'Boudin at Trouville' is at the Burrell Collection, Glasgow (041-649 7151) to 28 Feb; then, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, 16 March-2 May.

An excellent catalogue ( pounds 14.95) by Vivien Hamilton accompanies this exhibition. Sponsored by Whyte & Mackay Group.

(Photograph omitted)

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