Boudin was born at Honfleur, the son of a ship's captain. The centre of his early activities was Le Havre where he opened a framing shop, visited by painters, including Jean-Francois Millet, who encouraged him to take up painting. Boudin visited Paris, where he studied at the Louvre. He also established contact with painters of the Barbizon School.
Like Corot, Boudin was largely self-taught and he followed Corot's example in his preference for working directly from nature. The majority of his paintings are small landscapes of the harbours and beaches of the coast of northern France, informed by a sharp eye for social detail. In about 1856 Boudin met Claude-Oscar Monet and introduced him to outdoor painting. The two worked together in the later 1860s.