During the Franco-Prussian War in the winter of 1870–71, Boudin left Paris to avoid the fighting. But unlike his friend Monet, who went to England, he based himself in Brussels. He was no doubt encouraged by his art dealer telling him there was a ready market for his marine scenes in Belgium.
While he was in Brussels, Boudin produced a number of paintings of the fishmarket, the canals and the small commercial port. The harbour was not particularly busy, and this must have suited Boudin, who generally preferred tranquil ports to bustling industrial ones. Here he stresses the picturesque quality of the buildings, barges and small boats, calmly at anchor. The receding lines of the masts lead us along the channel and into depth. The predominantly grey palette is relieved by a few touches of red and yellow. Unlike Boudin’s beach scenes, human presence is implied rather than shown.
The son of a marine pilot, Boudin was born in the northern French port of Honfleur and grew up in Le Havre, so he was familiar with life in harbours and along the shore. He began his artistic career as a painter of marine subjects before carving out a niche for himself with beach scenes that showed the crowds of wealthy visitors who descended on the Normandy resorts of Deauville and Trouville each summer. There are three of these in the National Gallery’s collection: Beach Scene, Trouville (1860–70), Beach Scene, Trouville (1873) and Beach Scene, Trouville (1870–4). However, by 1870 he was beginning to focus once again on maritime scenes, for which there appeared to be a ready market – at least in Belgium.
In 1869 Boudin told a friend that the art dealer Léon Gauchez ‘has written to me in Brussels to say that I’m a complete success in that country. He hopes that city will become a market for me in the future.’ Boudin went on to say that Gauchez had advised him to paint carefully prepared marine scenes as he was hoping to pitch them against the works of Belgian marine artists – something he had already tried with Boudin’s friend Jongkind. When Boudin left Paris to avoid the Franco-Prussian War in the winter of 1870–71 he chose to base himself in Brussels. While he was there he produced several paintings of the fishmarket, the canals and the small commercial port.
Boudin had already established himself as a keen observer of changing skies and weather conditions, and here the overcast sky, reflected in the still waters of the harbour, is evidence of his continuing preoccupation with atmospheric effects. He also wanted to accurately record the topography. In the numerous harbour scenes that he painted throughout his career he tried to document the individual character of each port and its shipping. He stressed the care he took over his studies, writing: ‘…I flatter myself that the future public will view them with interest for what they show of the sails, rigging, and general state of ports in our day.’
Before its canal system was expanded in the late nineteeth century, Brussels harbour was not particularly busy; this must have suited Boudin, who generally preferred more tranquil ports over bustling industrial ones. Here he stresses the picturesque quality of the buildings, barges and small boats, calmly at anchor. The receding lines of the masts lead us along the channel and into depth. The predominantly grey palette is relieved by a few touches of red and yellow. Unlike Boudin’s beach scenes, human presence is implied rather than shown.
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