Coaxing and Coaching Monet
THE history of French Impressionism is not just that of a distinctive art movement. It is also the story of relationships - the close interaction of a group of excellent artists, men and women of varied ages and backgrounds, who created an episode unique in the history of art. The friendship between Eugene Boudin and Claude Monet is an outstanding example. Boudin is considered a minor artist who did not achieve significant acclaim during his lifetime or afterward. Monet is, of course, one of the superstars. The story of the beginning of their relationship is touching and owes to Boudin's gentle, generous character.
Eugene Boudin was born in the picturesque town of Honfleur, which is across the Seine estuary from the hustling port of Le Havre. When he was 20, he opened a frame shop which also sold artists' supplies. And he painted marine landscapes. The area was popular as a resort with artists and several well-known painters like Troyon and Millet came to buy their paints and brushes from him. From them he received encouragement for his paintings.
Shortly thereafter, Boudin left his shop in the keeping of an associate and went to Paris to study, making copies at the Louvre in the usual manner. As Le Havre seems to have been a city interested in the arts, two of his paintings were purchased by the ``Society of Art Friends of Le Havre'' and he received a three-year fellowship to the Ecole des Beaux Arts from the city. However, the classes at the school didn't interest him, and he returned home a plein air painter who sought, in his own words, ``the simple beauties of nature ... nature truly seen in all its variety and freshness.''
Claude Monet was 16 years younger. He had been born in Paris, but his family moved to Le Havre when he was five to open a grocery store. Young Monet was unruly and cocky. His school notebooks were filled with impudent caricatures of his teachers and other townsfolk. By 15 he was exhibiting these satiric portraits at Boudin's shop and selling them for 20 francs - a good price considering Millet was doing full-scale oil portraits for 30 francs.
Monet later recalled that when he heard passers-by exclaiming over his caricatures he ``nearly choked with vanity and self-satisfaction.'' In the same window were also displayed subtly colored marine landscapes which he, and most of the rest of the townspeople, found ``disgusting.'' He flatly refused to meet their painter, Boudin.
But one day when Monet was in the shop, Boudin came up to him and, as Monet remembered, ``complimented me in his gentle voice and said `... you are gifted; one can see that at a glance. But I hope you are not going to stop there. ... Soon you will have had enough of caricatures. Study, learn to see and to paint, draw, make landscapes. The sea and the sky, the animals, the people, and the trees are so beautiful, just as nature made them with their character, their genuineness, in the light, in the air, just as they are.'''
Boudin offered to take Monet sketching in the fields with him, but the 17-year-old refused repeatedly until he ran out of excuses. He said, ``I gave in at last, and Boudin with untiring kindness undertook my education. My eyes were finally opened and I really understood nature; I learned at the same time to love it.''
The elder painter had a clear, direct eye and mind. He told Monet, ``Everything that is painted directly on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vividness of touch that one doesn't find again in the studio.'' He added that the artist should show extreme stubbornness in retaining one's first impression - which is the good one.
After six months of Boudin's mentoring, Monet told his father that he wished to become a painter. His father applied to the municipal council for his son to receive the same fellowship which had been granted earlier to Boudin. But the young man's clever caricatures weighed against his serious intentions in the minds of the city fathers. Monet, who had put aside some of his money for those caricatures, set off for Paris. The career that followed brought great poverty and anguish, but ultimately, great fame.
Boudin remained in Le Havre, painting the vast sea and sky, the beaches, the boats, and the charming crinolined tourists. Early paintings by Monet reflect Boudin's influence. Late paintings of Boudin reflect Monet's influence. They seem to have kept up a steady correspondence and, of course, Monet returned to the Le Havre area throughout his career. Boudin, doubtless invited by Monet, exhibited with the Impressionist group in their first exhibition in 1874.
The two paintings on this page almost look as though the friends might have made them on the same painting expedition, although the dates do not bear this out.
The Boudin canvas exemplifies all of the most appealing aspects of Impressionism. The wonderful crowd of washerwomen with their bundles is swiftly brushed in with spotty strokes of grays and beiges with accents of blue, pink, and red. The figures are remarkable, at once an active crowd and a group of clearly realized individual figures.
The huge rock - one of the attractions of the resort of Etretat near Le Havre - was a favorite motif of many artists. Boudin painted it with a tannish understructure brushed over with dozens of tints of bluish-gray, greenish-gray, and reddish-gray.
In the Monet canvas, one of at least 18 views of Etretat which he painted in February, 1883, we have left the beach and are close to the forbidding rock. We may feel that we are in one of Boudin's small sailboats bobbing around in a boisterous sea. Monet used about every color on his palette to paint this luminous water. The chalk cliff does not appear to have a unifying color underneath but simply dematerializes under gorgeous strokes of pinkish beige, rose, yellow, light blue. The northern sky in both paintings is pale blue with veils of white and faintly rosy clouds.
The Boudin canvas was painted toward the end of his career, his love of the sea and the force of nature not only undiminished but enhanced on the canvas by the younger man's painting theories. The Monet canvas was done in the first third of his career when he had come to grips firmly with what we now recognize as the Impressionist technique. It was painted before the last of their group shows.
While the Boudin canvas is plainly a tribute to what he learned from Monet, the Monet canvas might never have come to exist without Boudin.