Eugene Boudin: The Man Who Inspired Monet

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    Le clocher Sainte-Catherine by Claude Monet, 1867. The bell tower of Sainte Catherine, located in the village of Honfleur in Normandy, is not actually connected to the church itself. The builders wanted to prevent the church roof from collapsing under the weight of the bells, and they also wanted to avoid a fire in the church in case the tower was hit by lightning.
    Musee Eugène Boudin, Honfleur. Photo: Henri Brauner
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    The bell tower of Sainte Catherine. The church is unusually shaped — it resembles an upside-down ship, probably because Sainte Catherine was constructed by shipbuilders in the 15th century.
    M. Lombard, Office du Tourisme de Honfleur
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    Personnages sur la plage de Trouville by Eugène Boudin, 1865. Boudin advised the young Monet to paint outdoors, or en plein air, in order to take advantage of natural light. Soon, painting en plein air would become a hallmark of the impressionist movement.
    Musee Eugène Boudin, Honfleur. Photo: Henri Brauner
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    Conversation sur la plage de Trouville by Eugène Boudin, 1876. The incredibly prolific Boudin painted more than 800 pieces over the course of his career, the vast majority of which depicted beach scenes and ships.
    Musee Eugène Boudin, Honfleur. Photo: Henri Brauner
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    The beach at Trouville. Trouville became a popular tourist destination in the 19th century, when a new craze for "sea-bathing" swept through France. Its boardwalk was built in 1867.
    Loïc Durand, Calvados Tourisme
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    Impressionism: Sunrise, by Claude Monet, 1872. This painting is usually credited as the founding work of the Impressionist movement, with its sketchy brushstrokes and emphasis on lighting effects at the expense of human figures.
    The Art Archive/Musée Marmottan Paris / Superstock
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    Le Havre Waterfront. Claude Monet grew up in Le Havre, a seaside town in north-western France. Over the course of the 19th century, Le Havre became a thriving industrial center, with much of its economy focused around its busy port.
    *heloise* via Flickr
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    Rouen Cathedral doorway and tower in morning light, harmony in white, by Claude Monet, 1894. This is one of the 30 paintings of Rouen Cathedral that Monet worked on in the period 1892-1894. The artist focused on capturing the effect of light on the stone masonry at different times of day.
    The Art Archive/Musée d'Orsay Paris / Gianni Dagli Orti
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    Rouen Cathedral in the Afternoon, by Claude Monet, 1894. Monet would usually work on the cathedral paintings from 7 in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evening, painting up to 10 canvases at once.
    The Art Archive/Pushkin Museum Moscow / Superstock
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    Hotel Des Finances. Monet began working on his series of the Rouen Cathedral from the first floor of this 15th-century building. At the time, it was a lingerie shop, and Monet had to work behind an improvised screen so as not to disturb the shop's customers.
    JF Lange, Rouen and Seine Valley District Tourist Office
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    Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1906. This was one of many in a series of paintings Monet did of the lily ponds surrounding his Giverny home.
    Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago
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    A closer view of the water lilies in the gardens surrounding Monet's home in Giverny. Monet made his garden, now a popular tourist attraction, with the help of his family and six gardeners.
    iStockphoto.com
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    Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet, 1900. Monet loved the way light moved over the lily pond at Giverny, which is spanned by small green bridges.
    Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago
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    Another view of of Monet's garden as it is today. Monet modeled this part of the gardens, surrounding his house, on Japanese gardens. The artist was an avid collector of Japanese prints, which influenced Impressionism as a whole.
    iStockphoto.com

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In Normandy, the small and charming port town of Honfleur has everything: an iconic old bell tower that provides an excited peal for weddings; an ancient wooden church across the street, where the organist does better than "Here Comes the Bride" to mark the occasion; and — along the little cobblestone streets, hurdy-gurdy players providing more secular music for the hordes of camera-toting tourists.

Eugene Boudin i i

Eugene Boudin, who coaxed Claude Monet to the seaside and inspired him to paint in the open air, ran a framing shop before taking up painting himself. Pierre Petit/Archives Larousse, Paris, France/ Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library hide caption

itoggle caption Pierre Petit/Archives Larousse, Paris, France/ Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library
Eugene Boudin

Eugene Boudin, who coaxed Claude Monet to the seaside and inspired him to paint in the open air, ran a framing shop before taking up painting himself.

Pierre Petit/Archives Larousse, Paris, France/ Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library

Away from the crowds, Honfleur also has an art museum with some notable samples of impressionism in Normandy. The Boudin Museum was founded by a local boy who made good: Eugene Boudin, a forerunner of impressionism who's not that well-known, either in the U.S. or France. But his influence is visible in every collection of 19th-century French art.

Boudin didn't start out to be a painter. His father ran a ferryboat between Honfleur and Le Havre, the big English Channel port, and Boudin worked on the boat as a child.

"And one day he fell overboard and was caught by one seaman," says Bridget Mueller, who guides visitors around Normandy. "Otherwise he would have drowned — so his mother said, 'You're not going on this ship again.' "

Instead, young Eugene went to school. A teacher spotted artistic talent, and from then on, Boudin went to sea via the canvases he painted. Mueller says there's hidden proof of the artist's seamanship: a notation on the back of every painting, recording the weather and the winds on the day it was made.

That assertion proved impossible to confirm; the Boudin Museum has some extremely serious-looking guards. And some seriously fine Boudins — small, portable canvases painted outdoors, on the nearby beaches of Deauville and Trouville in the 1850s and '60s.

Boudin's 'Personnages sur la plage de Trouville' i i

Boudin painted his Personnages sur la plage de Trouville in 1865, about 10 years after befriending Monet. Henri Brauner/Musee Eugène Boudin, Honfleur hide caption

itoggle caption Henri Brauner/Musee Eugène Boudin, Honfleur
Boudin's 'Personnages sur la plage de Trouville'

Boudin painted his Personnages sur la plage de Trouville in 1865, about 10 years after befriending Monet.

Henri Brauner/Musee Eugène Boudin, Honfleur

Fainting Ladies And Sea-Bathing By Proxy

Museum guide Rosaleen Aussenac says those beaches were becoming all the rage at the time.

"Up to the 19th century, the beach was a place where fishermen used to go to work," she explains, "not a place to have a nice walk, or to have a nice conversation."

But Boudin's pictures — La Conversation, Plage de Trouville, for instance — are full of fancily dressed men and women (long skirts, flowery hats, bowlers, suits, vests) sitting and strolling on the sand, holding parasols against the sun.

What brought them beachside? In the mid-1800s, fainting — yes, fainting — became nearly epidemic among England's noble and wealthy women. (Their tight corsets could not have helped.) Doctors prescribed sea-bathing sessions, among other remedies.

Now, in those days going into the sea was not for the faint-hearted. Ladies changed into bathing costumes inside little cabins; then horses pulled the cabin across the sand, and the lady emerged.

Caricature of Henri Cassinelli: 'Rufus Croutinelli' i i

Monet drew this graphite caricature of Henri Cassinelli in 1858. Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection, 1933/Art Institute of Chicago hide caption

itoggle caption Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection, 1933/Art Institute of Chicago
Caricature of Henri Cassinelli: 'Rufus Croutinelli'

Monet drew this graphite caricature of Henri Cassinelli in 1858.

Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection, 1933/Art Institute of Chicago

"And outside waiting for her was a big, strong, handsome man," Aussenac says. "And he would take her in his arms and walk into the sea, and put her in the water — once, twice, three times. ... Afterward he would bring her back to the cabin, and this was the sea-bathing session — isn't that nice?"

'I Want You To See The Light'

Eugene Boudin had a grand time painting all this beach activity. So did others — if the British, then the French upperclasses were going to hit the beaches, artists would go, too, to paint their portraits, do seascapes and make some money under the sunny-cloudy Norman skies. Boudin urged his young friend Claude Monet to join them at seaside. Monet was 15 years younger and making a reputation in Paris, drawing caricatures in charcoal.

Boudin thought Monet could do more.

"He said, 'Come on, Claude — your caricatures are fun, but it's not real art,' " says Aussenac. "'I mean art; I mean painting, Claude, painting!' "

Boudin kept nagging his young friend. Monet had grown up in Le Havre, and Boudin wanted to get him back to Normandy. "'Come over,'" he urged him, by Aussenac's account. "'I want to show you Honfleur; I want you to see the light.' "

Caricature of Jules Didier i i

Monet's caricature of Jules Didier, a French landscape painter. Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection, 1933/Art Institute of Chicago hide caption

itoggle caption Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection, 1933/Art Institute of Chicago
Caricature of Jules Didier

Monet's caricature of Jules Didier, a French landscape painter.

Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection, 1933/Art Institute of Chicago

There was that amazing light — the rich blue skies, dotted with scudding, big-bellied clouds that shifted the sunlight, making fields and rocks broody, then brilliant, in a flash. Monet capitulated, came to Honfleur, and he and Boudin painted side by side, outside, using portable easels and paint in tubes.

"And suddenly, suddenly, Claude Monet just understood what his friend had been telling him about," says Aussenac. "He understood. He said afterward that it was just like a curtain that [had opened] in front of his eyes. He understood what his life was about, and what painting was about."

Monet, inspired by Boudin, went on to create the very first impressionist painting — and to make studies of light as it fell on haystacks, a cathedral and — eventually — tangles of water lilies, floating in a pond.

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