“I have never forgotten that you were the first who taught me to see and to comprehend.” So wrote Claude Monet in a letter to Eugène Boudin near the end of his long and prolific career. The two met in 1856 in Le Havre, when the future father of Impressionism was just fifteen and making his start as a caricaturist. Boudin saw how talented Monet was and attempted to steer him toward landscape painting. After initial reluctance, Monet accepted Boudin’s invitation to paint en plein air with him, and from then on began to pursue a career as a landscape artist. Despite being the one who introduced Monet to landscape painting, Boudin never attained the same fame as his former student. “Monet/Boudin,” an exhibition of around one hundred works at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, is one of the first to examine Monet in the context of Boudin. On through September 30, the exhibition consists of several broad themes, one per room, arranged in loose chronological order.
Comparing their individual landscapes of Rouelles completed in 1858, at the beginning of their acquaintance, we see that, at least at the start, Monet imitated the style of his mentor. Their compositions are traditional, balanced, reminiscent of the Barbizon school. It is clear that Boudin transmitted his preference for close study of nature and for painting outdoors to his young disciple.
We begin to see the differences between the two, however, in the next section, entitled “Seascapes.” The views of nearby Trouville from 1865 by Boudin have low horizons, perfect for depicting the gray Norman skies, but they also maintain a fairly traditional palette and composition. In contrast, Monet’s The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1867) has a more saturated palette and a more successful composition that depicts the curve of the beach. A large portion of the exhibition is composed of seascapes, which form a major part of Monet’s work and the best part of Boudin’s.
Boudin’s father was a marine pilot from Honfleur, and the artist’s early exposure to the sea seemed to lead to a lifelong need to paint it. Both painters had commercial success depicting the bourgeois society of the beaches. Boudin practically invented the genre of plages mondaines, though it is quite striking that in his work we are always somewhat detached from the figures of the crowd, who are usually too far away for their faces to be seen. There is something fleeting about them, like a cloud lingering in the Normandy sky only for a moment. On the whole, the Channel waters and the sky dominate.
Monet’s beach scenes tend to be more individualized, something that can be seen in his 1870 painting Camille on the Beach in Trouville, which places his beloved wife in the foreground, leaving only a small strip for the sky. They are also more compositionally adventurous. In the Hôtel des Roches Noires in Trouville (1870), a steep diagonal axis separates the sky from the building. These were some of Monet’s last paintings before he left for London after the Franco–Prussian war.
Boudin made the most of the relative rapidity of pastel as a technique, and the quickly executed studies capture the spontaneous changes of the skies.
Perhaps most interesting is the collection of Boudin’s pastels. Boudin was too modest to consider these weather studies, which were drawn rapidly to capture the light and color of a particular moment in the sky, as completed works, but they surely prefigure the looser brushwork and instantanéité of Impressionism. They were highly praised by Monet, Baudelaire, Corot, and Courbet, among others. It is easy to see why. Boudin made the most of the relative rapidity of pastel as a technique, and the quickly executed studies capture the spontaneous changes of the skies. For Baudelaire, they were “like an intoxicating liquor or like the eloquence of opium.”
Despite this brilliance, however, it cannot be said that Boudin ever really reached the creative heights of Monet. Monet’s fugitive pink lights of dawn and dusk, his buildings in changeable London fog, or his nearly abstract waterlilies do not have any true equivalent in Boudin. (Anyone who wants to see an anachronistically impressionistic sea is advised to go to the nearby Museo Del Prado and see the sea in Andrea Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin [ca. 1462–64].) It is true that Boudin adopted the manner of Impressionism in the latter part of his career. This can be seen by comparing the successive paintings of the docks at Trouville that he made over the course of his life; the brushwork becomes looser and the composition less formal. He even exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition of 1874, although it seems that he did not consider himself truly part of this movement.
It is rare for a master to be eclipsed in this way by a protégé without some bitterness, but Boudin seems not to have minded. He was recognized late in life with commercial success and various awards, but, despite a sojourn in the south of France, he ended his artistic career much as he began, painting the skies and sea in his beloved Normandy. Toward the end of his career, he had doubts about what he had achieved: “I have spent too much time exploring fleeting effects of the sky and sea.” He was a modest, even self-deprecating man, who never considered himself a radical. Perhaps his modesty contributed to his relative lack of fame compared to the Impressionists themselves. “Monet/Boudin” is a compelling exhibition that strives to show us the older painter’s proper place in history: the man who taught the Impressionists how to see the skies.