In the popular imagination, the two artists whose works are in a joint exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza are seldom linked. One is Claude Monet, the Impressionist painter par excellence, whose spectacular series of water lilies, haystacks and cathedral facades are known and loved by the general public. The other is Eugene Boudin, a precursor with far less international name recognition, best known for his paintings of bustling Normandy beaches in the mid-19th century. Yet the former owed a great deal to the latter, and he was the first to acknowledge it.
That influence is what the Museo Thyssen sets out to highlight in a new show. “Monet/Boudin” (running from June 26 to September 30) brings together roughly 100 works — 40 of them by Monet and the rest by Boudin. Lenders include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and the Musee Eugene Boudin in Honfleur, France.
Angel Lopez Manzanares, who curated the show, said the idea came up when the museum (which owns five works by each artist) started investigating the provenance and literature related to those works. The curatorial team discovered that not only had the work of Boudin never been shown in Spain, there had never been a joint Monet and Boudin show anywhere. “This was the idea of the exhibition — just to put together for the first time a comparative study of the two artists,” said Lopez. Much is known about Monet’s childhood years. He was born in Paris in 1840. His father worked for the family shipping business, and when the boy was 5, the family moved to Le Havre, where he came into direct contact with the sea, the sky, and the shifting light. His talents were discovered early, and by his teens, he was a cartoonist who was able to sell his caricatures and to afford to take up studies with a local artist.
Boudin was born in Honfleur in 1824, and also moved to Le Havre as a boy. His father was a sailor on a steamboat that carried passengers between Le Havre and other ports. Boudin grew up in a family of much more meager means; his mother was a chambermaid employed on ships. As a result, art was something that he had to learn on his own. Little is known of his childhood, besides the fact that he was gifted enough to win a calligraphy prize at the age of 12.
By the time he turned 20, Boudin teamed up with a business partner and opened a stationery store in Le Havre specializing in the sale of painting and drawing materials. He started exhibiting his own sketches in the vitrine of the store, where they were noticed by painters such as Jean-Francois Millet (who was not quite won over) and Jean-Baptiste Isabey (who was a fan). But Boudin was called up for military service, and he had to leave the stationery store two years after having opened it.
Nonetheless, he resolved to be a painter for the rest of his life, and stuck to that resolution, despite the difficulties he had making ends meet. He split his time between Le Havre and Honfleur, and painted seascapes and landscapes that he sold to local collectors.
Luck finally came knocking in 1851, when he got a scholarship from Le Havre’s municipal council to study art in Paris. There, he spent days at the Louvre, copying works by great masters, and honed his artistic skills. He then returned to the northern French coast, though he continued to make frequent trips to Paris.
The first encounter between Boudin and Monet took place sometime in 1856, though it’s difficult to know exactly when and where. They met again in a stationery store in Le Havre, a chance meeting that, in the view of some historians, changed the course of art history.
Monet was by this time a fairly successful young cartoonist, while the older Boudin was still struggling to make a living as a painter. “Boudin realized that Monet had a talent that extended far beyond caricature, and that it ought to be applied to something else,” said Benjamin Findinier, director of the museums of Honfleur, including the Musee Eugene Boudin. “So Boudin tried to persuade Monet to accompany him and paint in the outdoors, from nature.”
Monet was initially puzzled by the idea, and took some convincing. Eventually, the two men set out on their first outdoor expedition, in the valley of Rouelles, in Normandy. These joint explorations proved to be momentous. As Findinier put it, “Boudin had a critical influence on what can be described as the pictorial conversion of Monet.”
That influence was threefold, according to Findinier. First, Boudin taught Monet to work from nature, in the outdoors. Secondly, he taught him to capture the moment, the instantaneity of a particular scene. “Boudin was almost seismographic when he wanted to record a moment. He would quickly sketch the scene he saw before him. If one wanted to capture a moment, a shifting scene, one had to paint fast. It wasn’t about detail and finish. And he transmitted that to Monet.”
Thirdly, Boudin worked in series: he produced pastels of the sky at various times of day and in various weather conditions. It is he who showed the way, and led Monet down a path that would culminate in the cathedrals, the haystacks, and the water lilies.
Much later, Monet would look back and pay homage to his master in no uncertain terms. “You know the affection that I always had for you, and also the gratitude. I have not forgotten that it is you who, first and foremost, taught me to see and to understand,” he wrote in a letter to Boudin in 1892. Three decades later, he would tell his biographer Gustave Geffroy that he considered Boudin “like my master,” adding “I have said it before, and I will say it again: I owe everything to Boudin, and I owe him my success.”
Lopez said he recognized Boudin’s importance both as an influence on Monet and as an artist in his own right. Boudin was “a great painter, because he tried to study nature and to have nature as his master. He also developed ideas that were important for the Impressionist generation, like the idea of instantaneity, of painting modern life. He was their forerunner.”
At the same time, he said, it would be wrong to exaggerate Boudin’s influence on Monet. “Monet was very gifted, and I think that, one way or another, he would have developed as a great painter,” said Lopez. The exhibition will include three loans from the Musee Eugene Boudin in Honfleur. One particular loan connects the two artists in an extraordinary way. It’s a view of the Eglise Sainte Catherine by Boudin, and yet it bears Monet’s personal stamp on the back.
“It was probably offered as a gift to Monet after Boudin’s death, in memory of his master,” said Findinier. “Boudin hadn’t had the time to sign the painting before it ended up in Monet’s hands. And at Monet’s death, his son, finding the unsigned painting in the atelier, put a ‘Claude Monet’ stamp on it.” It was only reattributed to Boudin in 2013, when the Grand Palais in Paris put on a major retrospective of Monet.
Visitors to the Thyssen exhibition who are drawn to Boudin could always see more in Honfleur. There, the museum has a collection of 120 paintings, drawings and pastels — works that impressed such 19th-century luminaries as the painter Camille Corot and the poet Charles Baudelaire, not to mention Boudin’s onetime mentee, a certain Claude Monet.