Interpretive Resource

Essay: "The Little Boudin Beach Scene" by William Maxwell

A short essay inspired by Eugene Boudin's Approaching Storm, 1864

Art Institute of Chicago. Transforming Vision: Writers on Art. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, p. 26-28.

My wife comes from Portland, Oregon, and for a number of years after we were married we went to the West Coast by train. Between our arrival in Chicago on the New York Central and our departure on the Union Pacific there was just time for a visit to the Art Institute. The first time I saw the little Boudin beach scene, in a gallery devoted to nineteenth-century French painters, I cried out with pleasure. It also awakened the sleeping criminal in me, for it is only twenty-two by fourteen inches, roughly, and I saw myself putting it under my coat and walking down the marble staircase and outs onto Michigan Avenue and hailing a cab. It is just as well that museum pictures are wired, because from time to time somebody is bound to think If I don’t have that painting where I can look at it every day. It is called Approaching Storm, and it was exhibited in the Salon of 1864. Napoleon III occupied the throne of France, though not very securely It could have been a metaphor for the political situation between France and Germany if Eugene Boudin had been that kind of painter.

The cloud bank has not yet blotted out the sunshine, which falls on two bathing machines in the center of the picture and a woman in a vast white crinoline. Her white jacket has a black trim. She has a furled white umbrella and is wearing a small black hat with a white veil, which the sea breeze is blowing from her face. Her dark hair is gathered in a large bun at the back of her neck—a fashion set by the Empress Eugene. She is holding by the hand a little girl whose outfit is a copy in miniature of hers.

A long line of bathing machines frames the composition on the left. They are in deep shadow and are a dove gray and essential. Without them it would look more or less like other Boudin beach scenes, of which there are a good many. The woman, the little girl, and a small terrier that clearly belongs to them are a cold zinc white. The two bathing machines in the center of the picture are a warmer white that is verging on ivory. Their wheels are resting on yellow sand.

My French dictionary doesn’t give the word for "bathing machine," but I can’t help thinking that either Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear had a hand in the naming of them. You undressed in the little house on wheels and a horse was put between the shafts and you were driven out beyond the shallow water to where it was deep enough to swim. And dived from the open door. And didn’t have to wear a bathing suit. If it was Madame who was bathing and not Monsieur, the attendant gazed discreetly at the horizon. I once knew a young Harvard professor who was so ardent an Anglophile that he imported a punt from England and poled his way up and down a small creek near Pomfret, Connecticut, but to the best of my knowledge bathing machines were never employed on any American beach. It must have been because they would have served no practical purpose. European beaches are, of course, rocky and rocks are painful to walk any great distance on.

What I love about this little Boudin is the mise-en-scene. The grouping of the figures could hardly be more theatrical. They are arranged in clusters, their heads close together, talking furiously. And there are many more women than men. The men are wearing black suits and, mostly straw hats with a small curled brim—except for the man who with a raised arm is pointing to an ominous cloud bank over the ocean; he is wearing a derby. And how much everybody has on! The voluminous black-and-white ensemble of a woman in the left foreground is going to inspire one of Manet’s finest canvases.

Boudin’s seascapes were done in the open air, which may account for the hasty brushstrokes and the general freedom of the painting. If he had been as tight a painter as Canaletto, for example, one would have been able to make out what the woman in the black cape and pale blue skirt is doing for the little girl in the scarlet dress. Or is it mere fussy? It reminds me of how, when I was a small child, my mother would moisten a corner of her handkerchief with spit and remove a smudge from my face. The color red is placed carefully throughout the picture—behind the woman in white, in a pile of clothing under a bathing machine, in the dress of a woman in the right foreground, and in the cape of a talker seated some distance behind her near a flagpole. There are five such poles, very tall with triangular pennants waving from the top. Are they territorial, or do they convey information about the bathing conditions?

In the year 1948, sightseeing, we went from Mont-Saint-Michel to Saint-Malo. German bombers had obliterated the picturesque medieval harbor front. The new buildings put up by the French government were of no interest so we went on, by bus, to the famous beach at Dinard. The sky was lead-colored. The striped tents were pretty but there was a cold wind, and the bathers sat with their backs to the water and looked mean and unfriendly. Congo natives wear more to cover their nakedness than these French bathers did. In less than a hundred years all that clothing—crinolines, capes, camisoles, corsets, corset covers, petticoats, scarves, shawls, hoods, hats with ostrich feathers, silk cords with tassels, ribbons, veils—was simply blown away And with them feminine charm as it was understood by the Second Empire.

In the little Boudin, there is a patch of blue showing through an opening in the clouds. The sea birds have gone inland. How far away is the hotel verandah that the people must take refuge in before they are drenched to the skin. I figure the storm will break in about fifteen minutes. How well they all know each other! How much they are finding to say What beautiful French (if one could only hear it). The chairs they are sitting on are not of the folding kind but sturdy square, oak, one would say heavy. Certainly the chatter will go on until a sudden wind springs up and the first raindrops are felt. Then in alarm they will rise, gather up their things, and run for shelter, leaving the beach chairs to their fate. The painter, grateful for every second that he is allowed to go on painting, is of the opinion that when the lightning flashes begin and thunder rolls across the sky it is going to be one hell of a storm.

landscapes, weather/seasons, women
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