Eugène Boudin, the ‘Father of Impressionism’ was born in Honfleur in July 1824 and moved to Le Havre aged 10 where his father opened a picture framing shop. Here Boudin met many local artists who encouraged him to break the rules of traditional, studio bound painting and instead to go outside and paint the world as he saw it around him. Eventually became known the ‘King of the Skies’ and was the springboard to the redefining of not just French art but the global movement known as Impressionism. More that that though he broke open the notion of expressionism, whereby artists began to express their lives, feelings and emotions through their experiences, that fuelled all the art that followed in 20th century.
As with all iconoclasts he begin by fastidiously learning his craft. He was deeply influenced by the 17th century Dutch masters of the Golden Age. Boudin met Dutch painter Johan Jongkind who encouraged him to paint outdoors, ‘en plain air’ unlike the current studio based practice of painting indoors in which you could control every aspect of light, composition and theme. The only accepted subject matter then was classical or mythological scenes, anything else was not accepted by the strict rules of the galleries. This was expected from all serious artists if you wanted your works to be displayed so religious scenes or works inspired from classical inequity were where the only money was, if you wanted to earn a living painting.
Boudin’s earliest works naturally followed the rulebook and these two canvasses of the same religious scene showed his attention to fine details but nonetheless were a depiction outdoors. The details of the crowd on the hill in the background of one canvas were particularly mind boggling in their execution. Here the Dutch Masters’ influence on the young Boudin is incredibly strong and could easily be a Dutch scene. It is only the style of the clothing and colours that suggest any air of France, along with the tricolour, blue, white and red flag of the Republic.
His later painting of a scene in Venice has the flavour of Canaletto but Boudin is already beginning to loosen his brushstrokes but it still lack the confidence that grew with the passage of time in which the application of the paint itself became his signature style. Bold colours and the vagueness of expression would eventually become the very essence of French art.
This fast application of broader brushstrokes, hinting at details conveys the impression that the painter is a little short sighted. The blurred details suggest true perspective of human vision in the distance but focus on the foreground and you see that there is no sharpness of focus here at all. This deliberate switch of the perspective made many feel like the painting was an unfinished study before the details were added later.
In this beautiful scene Boudin had yet to wrestle with the scattering of light on the surface of water that was all around him growing up in the Seine estuary but this raw impression of a scene was his greatest gift to the art world. Natural light and its reflective qualities became key but they shimmered in their application.
Human vision is made from thousands of tiny details that our eyes scan constantly. We do not see the scenes in front of our eyes as we perceive them in a complete clear vision. The eye downloads all the fragments of what is laid out before us and this is fed into the brain which then translates all these separate details of visual data and creates the illusion of perfect vision. It is merely a trick of perception, the brain is stitching together the whole from these scattered fragments. Impressionism breaks those fragments up on a grander scale and challenges the brain to put them all together to create an imagined truth from an illusion.
Here you see water, a boat, a river bank, a hut, a tree, the sky but slowly your brain tries to add more data to the image and begins reaching around for details that are not there. You are instead left with an impression of a scene, yet the brain still attempts to stabilise what is not fully formed. Most viewers are used to highly polished, exceptionally art so this would have seemed juvenile and unfinished but much like a description of a landscape in the written word of a novel, the perceiver is left to conjure their own truth inside their head.
Just how far the viewer is willing to be pushed visually, to fill in the gaps and create their truth of the scene before them, was part of the driving force behind the burgeoning movement eventually known as Impressionism.
Boudin met the 18 year old Claude Monet in 1858 and was soon encouraging him to give up painting his teenage charcoal caricature drawings. He wanted to encourage Monet to instead become a landscape painter, working like himself, to capture the fleeting magic of the light outdoors as it shifted and changed across the natural world dipping in and out of clouds. To capture the life and movement of the passage of time on a landscape. He taught Monet how to use oil paints to enable him to capture the world he saw around him on a much grander scale.
Boudin gave Monet his love of colour and also the play of light on the surface of water that would go on to define not just the art of Monet himself but also to define the Impressionist movement. Though defining that movement is not a simple task as the artists involved spent hours debating and arguing with each other over the philosophy of paint, colours and style they were creating. The name Impressionism was thrust upon them by a critic attempting to ridicule their unfinished juvenile approach to art mainly because they were iconoclasts breaking free from the restraints of the stuffy art world. This disparate gang, of mainly men, also fell out with each other over their individual styles and content too. Monet remains the very definition of Impressionism even when he was breaking the rules within the movements’ vague rulebook. An early rule was no black so Monet creates darkest foggy mauves.
Until the discovery in the mid 19th century of synthetic organic dyes by William Perkin oil paints were made from crushed mineral and precious stones. Blue from Lapis Lazuli was so expensive it was reserved for the Mother of God. Tyrian purple, of Imperial purples reserved for emperors and cardinals as it was created from the mucus of the Murex sea snail and over a thousand were need to dye the hem of a tunic. Mauve was impossible to create so it only appeared in flowers in the natural world.
When Perkin synthesised a colour he called Mauveine the world went colour crazy almost over night as vast crinoline dresses of the wealthy blushed mauve. As more and more colours were synthesised all paint colours became equal in price and so the palette of choices available allowed the Impressionists to change the frequencies of their canvasses to any hue imaginable.
Boudin never really felt part of the group though he did exhibit works alongside those of the much younger artists. Monet was born in Paris but moved with his family to Le Havre aged four. On returning to Paris to further his love of painting he saw artists at the Louvre copying the techniques of the masters. Rather than join then he would sit and paint what he saw of life outside the window.
This desire to capture real life was his driving force and he often painted the same scene several times to demonstrate the changing light and passage of time. This was especially true in his latter years in his garden at Giverny.
Here’s a link to the most amazing stained glass windows by Marc Chagall that I posted way back. This tiny church is the only building in the world where every window is by Chagall. It is such an emotional experience most people weep on their first visit.
Pick a detail
So this week we are looking at small details of larger works. Which fragment of an impression of Impressionism is your blind spot that hampers your bigger picture? Select the detail from a great work to find out what is stopping you from seeing your bigger picture.
Wassail and thanks for calling into my website.