Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris
Until 22 July
In 1920, the ageing Claude Monet wrote to his biographer Gustave Geffroy: “As to the ‘king of skies’, I think I’ve already told you that I consider Eugène Boudin to be my master. I became fascinated with his sketches, daughters of what I call instantaneousness.”
The praise is hardly hyperbolic: it was indeed Eugène Boudin (1824-98) who, in 1858, encouraged Monet to leave the studio behind and to paint en plein air, directly from nature, to catch the light - “La lumière surtout!” - and to capture the effects of the light on the landscape, which would result in a painting to the moment and of the moment: Monet’s instantanéité.
But if it is the artist’s true task to render, as accurately as possible, the fleeting, fugitive impressions that atmospheric changes bring about, then Impressionism (including its hallmark serial paintings of haystacks, cathedrals and water lilies, which Boudin prefigures in his Abbeville paintings and his meteorological series) is just around the corner. As Monet admitted: “I owe everything to Boudin, and I am grateful to him for my success.”
The Musée Jacquemart-André currently honours Monet’s master with an exhibition of 65 oil paintings, watercolours and pastels, 36 of which have never been shown in France (Boudin’s overall oeuvre comprises some 3,000 items). Interestingly enough, it is the first such retrospective in Paris since 1899, although Boudin’s birthplace of Honfleur in Normandy hosted similar but less comprehensive exhibitions in 1992 and 1998.
This relative neglect of one of the key figures in the birth of Impressionism is all the more surprising since Monet was not the only one to acknowledge, at the time, Boudin’s pivotal role and singular impact on the scene: through his stationery and framing shop in Honfleur, Boudin had already made the acquaintance of painters Constant Troyon and Jean- Francois Millet. Having sold his business in 1846 and won a scholarship in 1851, self-taught Boudin could be in Paris more often. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (a major influence on him, like other painters of the Barbizon school, and the first to actually use the phrase “roi des ciels” in connection with Boudin) became his friend, as did the Dutch marine painter Johan Jongkind. No lesser figures than Gustave Courbet and Ivan Turgenev praised the man from the provinces - but nobody was more enthusiastic than Charles Baudelaire.
In his Salon de 1859, Baudelaire waxed lyrical about Boudin’s art: “If you have had the leisure to acquaint yourself with these meteorological beauties, you will be able to verify, by memory, the exactness of Monsieur Boudin’s observations. Hide the legend with your hand, and you will still be able to guess correctly at the season, the hour and the wind. I don’t exaggerate one bit. I’ve seen it. Ultimately all these fantastically shaped, luminous clouds, this chaotic darkness, these immense expanses of green and pink, each hung and added on to the next, these gaping furnaces, these purple and black satin firmaments, crumpled, rolled or torn, these horizons in mourning or running with molten metal, all these depths, all these splendours, go to my head like an intoxicating liquor or like the eloquence of opium.”
If, for Baudelaire, Boudin was an exemplary painter of modernité, it was, above all, for these two reasons: Boudin painted the moment, and he did so without anecdote, without narrative, without subject, without an intrusive “human” element, as Baudelaire registers with some amazement at himself: “It’s a curious thing, but it never occurred to me once, in front of these liquid or aerial wonders, to complain about the absence of man.”
Make no mistake: there are human figures in many of Boudin’s paintings and sketches: fishermen and -women, washerwomen, high-society vacationers. But evidently, these figures themselves are not what these paintings are “about”. Single-handedly, Eugène Boudin became, in the 1860s, the inventor of a new genre of painting: a painter of plages mondaines, beaches populated with upper-class spa visitors, but represented merely as “figures in a space”, as Laurent Manoeuvre, the director of the Paris exhibition, explains.
The history of this is most instructive: in 1858 (the year when Monet first met Boudin), the Duke of Morny, half-brother to Napoleon III, discovered the seaside town of Deauville, which was, within years and with the backing of the emperor, turned into a fashionable resort: grand-scale real-estate speculation preceded the building of a direct railway line to Paris, a racecourse and a casino. For a time, it was de rigueur for the rich and super-rich to spend their summers in Deauville and Trouville.
Eugène Boudin, who had been there and loved and painted the place before it became fashionable, observed it all - and he hated it. Knowing the poverty of peasants in Brittany, he observed: “If you have passed one month among the people condemned to hard work in the fields, with black bread and water, and you then find that gang of golden parasites with such a triumphant air, you can’t help feeling a bit of pity.”
Still, he painted them, on the beaches of Normandy. Not as recognisable individuals, but as de-individualised, indolent groups of people in sophisticated dresses (“nos petites poupées”, he called the women), with their colourful parasols, chairs and beach cabins - mere figures in space, most impressively so in Scène de plage (1869): the twilight of the bourgeoisie. (There is an echo here, it seems to me, of Caspar David Friedrich’s disconcerting The Monk by the Sea. Whoever wants to know more about Modernism’s conflicted relationship with German Romanticism should also visit the Louvre’s magnificent De l’Allemagne 1800-1939, de Friedrich à
Beckmann exhibition, which continues until 24 June.)
Of course, these paintings did not sell. Because they refuse to give a meaning to the scene beyond the obvious: rich people in the morning; rich people in the afternoon; rich people at sunset; exposing themselves, at their leisure, to domesticated elements. Their meaning is outside the frame. It is painting sans sujet, but also a kind of painting without subjects, because these human figures are evidently only objects. If they do not recognise themselves and take exception to the fact, they are probably overestimating their own importance. As Boudin said in 1864: “We haven’t drawn a single sou from these bathers this year. Definitely, one must be content with just painting them.”
Twilight of the bourgeoisie and of the beau monde? Of course, it couldn’t and it didn’t last. At least the fashion passed as quickly as it had come. Boudin, however, stayed on, painting abandoned beaches now, knowing full well, “I will do other things, but I will always be the painter of beaches”. Ironically, and more to the point, he is also a painter of absences, even when he paints the momentary presence of the upper classes. Here today, gone tomorrow: a fleeting, transitory impression of a social group, puppets all of them, deprived of inherent meaning.
Why was the king of the skies and the luminary of light so scandalously eclipsed by the Impressionists? Because, standing in front of Boudin’s works, one has to know that he came first, that he taught them to paint the light, fleeting effects, the moment - without subject, without story or anecdote. This precedence is not in the paintings. The temporality that is first frozen and then edited out of these paintings, because they refuse to tell a tale, returns with a vengeance in their reception history: you only see what you know, as Goethe put it.
These paintings and sketches capture the truth of the moment, or what Baudelaire called “modernity, what is transitory, fleeting and contingent” - for him, “half of the art”. The other half may not exactly be, as Baudelaire proclaimed, “eternal and unchanging”, but it resides in the sequence of these moments, manifested in series of sketches and paintings of the same motif. This meaning has to be added by the spectator, because it is not within the frames, but definitely between them. It is only in the differences of a series that you see the appearance and disappearance of these groups of people - empty beach, populated beach, empty beach again. This other truth is the illusion of historical meaning that is created by the succession of frames - a meaning, however, that is never in any individual painting, but in the interstices of those frames.