A few days ago I was sitting on a plane doing what New Yorker subscribers do on planes: Catching up on back issues. In the midst of the April 16 issue was this Bruce Davidson picture of the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. from 2008.
I’ve long been enamored of Boudin’s small, almost hand-sized paintings of the French coast near Trouville, Deauville and other Channel-side French beach towns. They’re hardly the first French beach paintings — the Barbizon painters, among others, were at seaside when Boudin was still selling frames — but they’re my first favorites. (After all, the bourgeoisie is best experienced with about a 150-year time-delay.)
Check out the blue ribbon on the hat of the red-coated girl on the far-right, the ribbon waving in the wind. It’s fantastic. For a better look thanks to the Met’s super collection site, click here and then click on ‘full-screen’ to expand the painting to 3,700 x 2,300 pixels.
Eugene-Louis Boudin, On the Beach, Sunset, 1865. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Boudin cranked out these precious little beach paintings of — and presumably for — the new French bourgeoisie in numbers that would have impressed painter-to-the-Grand-Tour-ist Canaletto. Twentieth-century American collectors loved ‘em too: Seemingly every American museum of a certain age has a dozen or two of ‘em. The French held on to a bunch as well: The Musee d’Orsay has at least 106 Boudins.
Eugene Boudin, The Beach at Trouville, 1867. Collection of Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Once the Davidson started me thinking about Boudin, I got to thinking about beaches. You know what? Artists love beaches. And they have since at least Botticelli, who painted Venus arriving on one.
For a couple years thereafter, beaches mostly popped up in southern European paintings as a mythologically proscribed site for action.
Titian, Europa, ca. 1560-62. Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
Influential, that Titian. So much so that 350-some-odd years later, Pierre Bonnard borrowed from it. However, as a painter who loved with south of France, the beach took place of privilege in Bonnard’s scene.
Pierre Bonnard, The Abduction of Europa, 1919. Collection of the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.
But I’m running ahead of myself. While the southern European painters were placing Venuses and Europas by the seaside, in the north beaches weren’t for recreation, they were for work. In particular for fishing boats and markets where the day’s catch was sold.
Jan van Goyen, Shore at Scheveningen, 1634. Collection of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
For Dutch artists beaches were also useful as the national site of portending doom. In the Dutch imagination (or superstition or version of Protestantism or, well, real-life experience), the riches of the sea were never far from the disaster of the sea.
Jan Porcellis, Shipwreck Off the Coast, 1634. Collection of The Mauritshuis, The Hague.
In the early 17th-century, dead whales had an inconvenient and astonishingly regular way of washing up on Dutch beaches. The Dutch public, influenced by austere sermonizers such as Jacob Cats, was fascinated by this. In “The Embarrassment of Riches,” Simon Schama writes that Cats and other moralizers thought the dead whales “function[ed] as both oracle and description” and that the beached whale “carried in its imposing bulk both associations of riches and reminders of penitential obliteration [of the Dutch nation].”
Jan Saenredam, Stranded Whale, 1602. Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
There are a bevy of prints, drawings and a few paintings of these beached whale scenes. They pretty much all feature the whale’s exposed phallus in roughly the center of the composition. Unfortunately for the early 17thC Dutch, Freud would not come along for another several hundred years. In a related story, not too long after Jan Saenredam drew this stranded whale, his son Pieter devoted himself to painting rigidly austere church interiors.
Meanwhile, a few centuries forward and a bit to the south and east, Caspar David Friedrich wanted none of this beached-whales-as-mass-entertainment stuff, of course.
Fortunately for the rest of art history, Friedrich’s view of the beach as a site for lonely spiritual contemplation didn’t catch on. In Britain, John Constable led the way and suddenly there wasn’t just labor on the beach — as signified by those fishing boats — there was recreation too. Whereas van Goyen and Salomon von Ruysdael gave us women picking up fish at seaside markets, Constable gives us a young woman with what appears to be the kind of umbrella that would protect the British complexion from the sun.
John Constable, Hove Beach, ca. 1824. Collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
And soon thereafter and across the Channel, every French artist worth his striped shirt headed for the beach. Boudin led the charge, but others followed, including Claude Monet, who was introduced to en plein air painting by Boudin.
(Speaking of this Wadsworth Monet, if you want to see something really remarkable, something that will make you say, ‘Whoa!’ out loud, click here.)
And it wasn’t just those two. Gustave Courbet joined them, both with canvas in hand and, well, on canvas, as you’ll see in the second painting below.
James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865. Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
Edgar Degas, Beach Scene, 1869-70. Collection of the National Gallery, London.
But as lovely as the beach was, many artists remained fond of celebrating it as the site of labor or commerce.
Edouard Manet, Tarring the Boat, 1873. Collection of the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.
Of course Monet painted lots more than fishing boats at Etretat. He painted literally dozens of views of the white cliffs there.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Thomas Eakins painted boys wrestling and swimming, but about the best he could do for a beach scene was… fishing for shad?! (Notice the one-percenters who seem to find the 99-percenters to be the sources of entertainment.)
Thomas Eakins, Fishing for Shad at Gloucester on the Delaware River, 1881. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
And there was the original American painter of light, Martin Johnson Heade.
Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport, ca. 1861-62. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Back in France, the impressionists gave way to the pointilists, who loved the way light danced off the ocean and the surrounding landscape.
Cross and his close friend Signac loved St. Tropez and introduced Henri Matisse to the town in about 1904, when Matisse, then something of a divisionist, was nearing his big breakthrough. It wasn’t until 1905, when Matisse’s wife Amelie dragged him to Collioure, a fishing village at the base of the French Pyrenees mostly ignored by painters, that Matisse made his Fauve breakthrough. (For an earlier view of Collioure, see the Signac above.)
Once he discovered the beach and color in Collioure, Matisse was hooked, and would be for life. In 1920, struggling a bit to emerge from the post-war funk that left so many French painters in lethargy, Matisse discovered the impressionists’ fondness for Etretat (Boudin was there too!). He made many paintings of the famed white cliffs there including a great painting at the Baltimore Museum of Art (which doesn’t believe in sharing its collection online, alas) and this painting, which adds fishermen to Monet’s fishing boats.
Motivated by Monet in particular, Matisse made lots and lots of paintings in Etretat in 1920. One of Matisse’s greatest homages to another artist was his updating of his great Fauve masterpiece, Open Window, Collioure with Open Window, Etretat, beach paintings both.
I could keep going with Matisse, so to break my reverie here’s an almost certainly unconscious American updating of Dutch beach-disaster painting.
Carleton Watkins, Wreck of the Viscata, 1868. Collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Tex. (Watkins also made many stereographs of the scene, including this fantastic image with a wave crashing on the Viscata.)
This is fun, so I’ll pick up from here sometime soon.