The nineteenth-century artist Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) was one of the most important precursors of the impressionist movement with his fondness for painting directly from nature with free, naturalistic brushwork and his fascination with studying the effects of light. Boudin was born in Honfleur in Normandy in 1824. His father was a harbour pilot and Boudin was brought up by the sea, working as a cabin boy for his father in his boat Le Polichinelle, travelling between Honfleur, Le Havre and Rouen. Although Boudin soon abandoned the trade, he retained a close bond with the sea, and in his later artistic career it became the subject of many of his works.
In 1836 the Boudin family moved to Le Havre when where they settled in the bustling old town of the port. At the age of eleven Boudin began briefly attended the École de Fréres and it was here that he first started drawing. The following year Boudin was apprenticed to a printmakers under Joseph Morient. His passion, and visible talent, for drawing was enhanced when Boudin gained employment at a stationery shop and picture framers in Le Havre. The owner, Alphonse Lemasle, upon seeing him drawing one day, gave Boudin his first box of paints. In later years Boudin would gift one of his first sketchbooks to his old employer. In 1844 Boudin set up how own stationery and framing business with Jean Archer. The shop had its own section for specialist art materials and soon acquired a great number of important clients, including Thomas Couture, Eugène Isabey, Jean-François Millet and Constant Troyon. These influential French artists began to have an impact on Boudin's own creativity and on his efforts to draw and paint. Boudin sold his share of the business in 1845 and used the money to get out of conscripted military service.
Despite having no formal artistic training, Boudin decided to devote himself to becoming an artist. He began to sell still lives and small landscapes and under the encouragement of Constant Troyon, he moved to Paris in 1847 to pursue his artistic training. He began by visiting the Louvre to draw the Old Masters on display and was particularly impressed by the seventeenth century Dutch school and by the Barbizon painters. In 1850 Boudin submitted paintings for exhibition at Société des Amis des Arts in Le Havre. Amazed by the work of this extraordinary young artist with no formal artistic education, the organisers purchased two of Boudin's canvases. The following year the city of Le Havre awarded Boudin a scholarship of 1,200 francs which allowed him to stay in Paris and focus on his painting. Boudin travelled frequently between Paris, Normandy and Brittany, often due to his poor finances, but nevertheless the changing scenery provided the young artist with a wealth of inspiration and new subject matter. Boudin would often be found on the beaches of Trouville and Honfleur, seated at a homemade easel under his umbrella rapidly sketching seascapes, fashionable crowds on the beach and shopping vessels in the ports. In 1856 Boudin first met Claude Monet at Gravier's, a stationer, framer and ironmonger's shop in Le Havre where Monet had been exhibiting caricatures. Boudin introduced Monet to coloured pastels and oil paints and encouraged the young artist to paint outdoors en plain air. A lifelong friendship would ensue with the two artists having a profound influence on each other. It was only much later in both artists careers that a rivalry became apparent, coinciding with the younger artist's rising fame and prominence in the Parisian art scene.
From the mid 1850s Boudin's work began to gain attention. In 1857 Alexandre Dumas acquired two marine paintings through an exhibition held by the poet Gustave Mathieu in Paris. Boudin makes his debut at the Paris Salon in 1859, where his work was admired by Charles Baudelaire. Later that summer Baudelaire visited Boudin's Paris studio and was deeply impressed by his studies of sky in pastel which he described as “spontaneous skyscapes”. With his rising success Boudin met important collectors and other influential artists, including Gustave Courbet, Charles François Daubigny and Jean-Baptiste Corot. Boudin's sun-drenched brushwork was praised by his peers for its ability to capture the ever-changing skies of northern maritime France. He received effusive accolades from other artists, most notably Corot who famously hailed him the “le roi des cels” (the King of the Skies) and Courbet who was moved to declare: “My God, you are a seraph, Boudin! You are the only one of us who really knows the sky.” These skies inspired a new generation of painters, chief among them Claude Monet. After observing Boudin paint for the first time, Monet declared: “Suddenly it was as if a veil had been torn from my eyes. I understood what painting could be. Boudin's absorption in his work, and his independence, were enough to decide the entire future and development of my painting.”
Boudin first visited the Normandy resort of Trouville in the early 1860s. There he painted depictions of the fashionable bourgeoisie enjoying the sea air. These depictions, called Crinolines, ushered in a new genre. Boudin was interested in the relationship of figures, sand, sea and sky, refracted in the dazzling coastal light. It was also in Trouville in 1862 that Monet introduced Boudin to Johan Barthold Jongkind and, influenced by his boldness of technique, adopted freer brushwork and a brighter palette. The following year Boudin exhibited at the Salon des Refusés and in 1864 exhibited his first beach scenes at the Paris Salon. Boudin would become a regular exhibitor at the Salon until 1897, the year before his death. Regular exhibitions in Paris, Boston and New York in the 1860s of Boudin's work, alongside the other artists of the day, were met with great acclaim as Boudin was finally gaining the recognition that he had sought so hard to find. During the Franco Prussian War, Boudin travelled to Belgium and The Netherlands and painted many scenes of the ports, markets and canals there. In the years following the War Boudin enjoyed increasing financial security, and journeyed to Camaret-Sur-Mer on the edge of Brittany's Finistère peninsula several times between 1870 and 1873. Excited by the challenge of capturing the ever-changing weather conditions along the Atlantic coast, Boudin created a series of paintings during these visits to the picturesque fishing port.
In many of his paintings, Boudin boldly dedicated over half of the composition to a vast grey sky; its subtle nuances and neutral tones serve to emphasise the proximity of the boats or figures in the foreground. A contemporary critic in The Boston Post stated that, “In representation of harbour views [Boudin] has no rival. His skies are a joy to see and his vessels always painted with inimitable skill and perfect knowledge. In his pictures there is a [good] deal of movement. One feels the bustle of hurrying out of port, or into it. The vessels sway with wind and tide, and their rigging is drawn with fascinating truth and naiveté.” In 1874 Monet invited Boudin to participate in the First Impressionist Exhibition for which he exhibited three landscapes, six pastels and four watercolours.
In 1881, Paul Durand-Ruel begun to represent Boudin and in 1883 Boudin's first solo exhibition in Paris was held at Galerie Durand-Ruel. Although the exhibition did not result in many sales, Boudin receive very positive comments in the press. In 1886 Durand-Ruel held an exhibition in New York, Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris, and Boudin's work was exhibited alongside that of Monet, Degas, Manet, Caillebote, Pissarro, Guillaumin and Seurat. In his last years Boudin continued to exhibit widely with Durand-Ruel and also at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. In 1884 he was awarded the Légion d'Honneur and in 1889 he won a gold medal for his submission to the Exposition Universelle. In his last years many museums began to acquire his work for their public collections. By the mid 1890s Boudin's health was in rapid decline. He had cancer of the stomach and continued to paint until he could no longer lift his arms and walk, finally succumbing to illness in 1898. Works by Eugène Boudin can be found in many museums worldwide including the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The National Gallery, London; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Musée du Louvre, Paris and The Hermitage, St Petersburg.