WASHINGTON - During the summer months, many vacationers head to the beach to seek relief from soaring temperatures.
This season, the National Gallery of Art offers its own escape from the heat with a variety of beachfront vistas courtesy of French artist Eugene Boudin (1824-1898).
Boudin devoted his creative energies to depicting life along the Normandy and Brittany coastlines in France. His renderings prove both inviting and refreshing, and serve as the focus of a rare display of his artwork at the National Gallery through Aug. 5.
“Eugene Boudin at the National Gallery of Art” presents the first in-depth look at Boudin’s oeuvre in 30 years through more than 40 paintings, drawings and watercolors. The exhibition also pays tribute to the centenary anniversary of the birth of National Gallery founding president Paul Mellon, who, through gifts, provided the museum with a significant number of Boudin works.
Raised in Le Havre in Normandy, Boudin developed a strong bond with the sea and coastal life. He later moved to Paris, but made regular visits to the north coast of France, particularly the seaside resort at Trouville.
A practitioner of a naturalist approach to art, Boudin painted en plein air, an outdoors working style that would find favor among many other French artists, including noted Impressionist master Claude Monet.
Early Boudin works here include several small-scale paintings and oil sketches. Boudin produced many of these pieces for sales to affluent urban visitors that headed to the French coast during the summer.
In one of the smallest pieces on view, “The Beach” (1877), a group of fashionably dressed beach visitors relax on the shore, spread across a 4 ¼-by-10 inch format. Two other early paintings, “Jetty and Wharf at Trouville” (1863) and “Beach Scene at Trouville” (1863), measure roughly 13 inches by 22 inches, and depict diminutive figures on the beach under expansive skies. The use of such a large sky area in each composition helps guide a viewer’s attention toward the figures in the foreground. This stylistic approach not only draws in the viewer, but also creates a sense of presence and intimacy.
Boudin’s drawings and sketches works on paper are equally engaging. The spontaneous quality of his watercolor sketches, such as his “Four Ladies in Crinolines Walking at Trouville” (1865) and “Ladies and Gentleman Walking on the Beach with Two Dogs” (1866), produces a vibrant immediacy.
When the weather turned cold in the winter, Boudin retreated to Paris, where he used his drawings and sketches to produce finished paintings.
Not all of Boudin’s work focused solely on vacationers. He also portrayed another side of seaside life: commerce and labor.
Boudin had a keen sensitivity for the nuances of changing light. With a delicate touch, he produced atmospherically rich seascape imagery. His “Return of the Terra-Neuvier” (1875), for instance, shows coastal workers off loading goods from a ship under a dramatic, even foreboding sky.
With one eye toward official recognition of his art, Boudin’s imagery assumed a more formal quality in his late works. His grand scene of late day water traffic, “Entrance to the Harbor, Le Havre” (1883), is the largest painting in the exhibit at nearly 4 feet by 6 feet, and earned a prize at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1883.
Yet, Boudin also maintained his colorful flair in later years. His “Yacht Basin at Trouville-Deauville” (1895/1896) proves one of the most dazzling paintings on display, as the signal flags adorning the tall masts of a flotilla seemingly flutter playfully in the breeze on a picture-perfect day.
IF YOU GO:
The National Gallery of Art is located on Constitution Avenue between 3rd and 9th streets N.W.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Web site: www.nga.gov/exhibitions/boudininfo.htm
Upcoming exhibit tour: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va. (Nov. 14-Jan. 27, 2008).