One of the first French painters to work directly from nature, Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) almost exclusively painted the sea and beaches of northern France, capturing the sprawling skies and tempestuous seas of Normandy. Named “King of the Skies” by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Boudin was dedicated to capturing the fleeting effects of the Atlantic light and atmosphere, his skies imbued with light and shadow and splendid arrays of colors. His studies of light, sea, and sky provided a bridge between the naturalism of early 19th century landscape painting and the fluid brushwork of Impressionism.
Born in the sea town of Honfleur in Normandy, the son of a ship captain, Boudin spent his childhood assisting his father on a ferryboat that made trips across northern France. When his father moved on from seafaring, the family settled in Le Havre where his father opened a stationery and framing shop. The young Boudin worked in his father’s shop for a few years before setting up his own small shop, where he met artists and saw paintings by contemporaries like Jean-François Millet, and soon developed an interest in landscape painting himself. At twenty-two, Boudin started painting full time and moved to Paris to pursue his training and career.
By 1853, Boudin returned to Le Havre and embarked upon his lifelong passion, painting scenes of the sea. First encouraged to paint outdoors by the Dutch artist Johan Jongkind, Boudin was one of the pioneers of the en plein air method of painting, a technique that involved painting outside directly from a landscape rather than working in a studio from preparatory sketches, a practice which was later made famous by the French Impressionists. In his en plein air seascapes, Boudin focused on quickly capturing the shifting effects of atmosphere and the play of the light on water, carefully annotating the backs of his paintings with notes on the weather, wind, and lighting conditions.
Dividing his time between Paris and the Normandy coast, Boudin developed a close circle of friends that included the painter Gustave Courbet, the art critic Charles Baudelaire, and Claude Monet, whom he taught for several months. Boudin befriended the young Monet in 1857 or 1858, convincing him to abandon his caricature studies to paint seascapes alongside him outdoors, famously telling Monet that “I want you to see the light.” Monet later acknowledged Boudin’s influence, and the en plein air study of light became the foundation of the Impressionist movement.
In the early 1860s, Boudin achieved success with his scenes of fashionable beach resorts of the Normandy coast, paintings in which he documented the dramatic Atlantic light and also the social milieu and fashionable dress of the visiting tourists. Although his beach scenes sold well, Boudin received little critical recognition until late in his career. Boudin exhibited alongside Monet in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, but he did not join the movement; instead, Boudin later found success in official and academic circles, exhibiting in the official Salon from 1875 and winning prizes at the 1881 Paris Salon and the 1889 Exposition Universelle and became knighted in 1892 to the Légion d’honneur. In his later years, Boudin spent the winters in the South of France and made regular trips to Venice, but he returned to his home at Deauville on the Normandy coast to spend his final days before his death in August 1898.