The phenomenon of French bathing attracted the attention of English journalists. The popular magazine Once a Week included a gently satirical article in November 1861. The writer describes the hiring of a costume, the wait to use a bathing machine in which to change, and ‘the novelty of seeing ladies of all builds, from Mrs Gamp to Ophelia, paddling down in scanty bloomers, without shoes or stockings.’ He concluded that ‘when I felt that these gentlemen in check shorts were neither acrobats nor clowns, but sober, steady men of business who bathed on principle … I decided in favour of the French fashion over the English.’ The visit was to a non-segregated bathing establishment, and was probably at the weekend when husbands came down from Paris to join their wives and children, returning to work during the week.
Eugène-Louis Boudin, The Beach at Trouville - The Empress Eugenie (detail), 1863. Oil on wood, 34.3 x 57.8 cm.
The development of non-segregated bathing added the element of pleasure to the therapeutic benefits of the sea, with opportunities for flirtation and observation that reminded men of the image of Venus rising from the sea.
‘Some come to bathe, others to admire the rise and fall of the waves, where, at high tide, elegant and gracious sirens are swimming.’
Conty Guide to Etretat
In comparison to Isabey, a completely different view of Parisian tourists is to be found in the paintings of Eugène Boudin (1824–1898). The son of a sea captain from Honfleur, the whole of his artistic life was essentially devoted to the ports, the beaches and the landscapes of the Normandy coast. He was much influenced by Isabey, drawing from him a sense of atmosphere and of wind-blown cloud, which he developed through greater effects of subtlety and nuance. His pastel cloud studies were praised by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) who, describing ‘their fantastic and luminous forms’ concluded: ‘all these depths and all these splendours rose to my brain like a heady drink or like the eloquence of opium.’
We know Boudin best from his generally small, horizontal pictures of fashionably dressed tourists promenading on the beach. With the figures arranged in a frieze-like fashion, the eye moves across, picking out the different groups, the flash of colour of a brilliant dress, sometimes an isolated individual. There is, however, no anecdotal content. The socialising and opportunity for display are contained within the groupings, and the bathing and sea are generally relegated to the background.
Boudin had a slightly ambivalent attitude to the tourist influx. In 1867 he wrote to a friend: ‘This band of gilded parasites who look so triumphant, one pities them a little, and feels a certain shame in painting their idle laziness.’ But a year later he relented, writing to the same correspondent: ‘Don’t the bourgeois, who stroll on the jetty towards the sunset, have the right to be fixed on canvas, to be brought to the light?’ Nevertheless, by the end of the decade Boudin returned to more traditional subjects associated with the native population who wrested a hard-earned living from the sea.
The overall bright, almost blond tonality of Boudin’s beach paintings of this period was known as peinture claire and was an important influence on Claude Monet. Of all the Impressionists, Monet had the most intense and long-lasting relationship with the Normandy coast. Brought up in Le Havre, he had met Boudin in 1858, the older painter encouraging him to work from nature. Boudin never went as far in the Impressionist analysis of colour or experimentation with brushstroke, but he kept in touch with Monet, whose influence can be felt in some of his late work.
Another important influence on Monet was the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819–1891), who had studied with Isabey and brought with him an intimate knowledge of seventeenth-century Dutch seascape painting. Monet met him in 1862 while Jongkind was working on cat. 10. What distinguishes him from his Dutch predecessors is a greater concern for specific light and weather effects. The beach is the province of fishermen, their boats and wives, with no sign of tourist development. The sun, hidden by clouds, illuminates their edges with a loose, broadly brushed, glowing light. Despite his interest in these effects, Jongkind’s oil paintings were all done in the studio. Monet said of his meeting that the painter became ‘from that moment, my true master, and it is to him that I owe the definitive education of my eye.’
‘It was in 1867; my style had become definite, but it was still not really revolutionary in character. I was still a long way off adopting the principle of the subdivision of colour that set so many against me, but I was experimenting with effects of light and colour that flouted convention.’
Monet, interviewed in 1900
Sainte-Adresse was at an earlier stage of development than other resorts, and their success was often related to the kind of people they could attract. As evidence of a resort’s popularity the larger hotels and casinos would publish guest lists to stake a claim in the social ranking. The Trouville casino, in 1865, boasted the presence of three dukes and their wives, five princes and princesses, and a similar number of marquis, not forgetting any leading Parisian socialites whose name was worth a mention.
Monet and his wife Camille, recently married in June 1870, found a humble back-street hotel in Trouville to spend the summer. The hotel Monet actually painted, L’Hôtel des Roches noires, was one of the newest and smartest. Its splendid facade looked out over the promenade and sea front, and visitors could view the sea, which hardly figures in the painting, from balcony or terrace. The brisk breeze animates a collection of flags that suggest an international clientele, and hats are raised to new acquaintances, all painted with a masterful fluency and a bright tonality which reminds us of Boudin. Eight of the nine pictures Monet painted on this trip deal with the life of the visitors, and were the closest he came to exploring the modernity of seaside resorts.
‘Trouville … it is the meeting-place of the sick who are perfectly healthy, it is Paris transported for two or three months to the sea coast, with its qualities, its absurdities and its vices…It is sad to say that most of the women go there to parade a senseless luxury.’
Adolphe Joanne, 1866
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide Impressionists by the Sea: An Introduction to the Exhibition (712 KB) , by Greg Harris.