The son of a sailor, Boudin spent his youth on the Normandy coast of France. By 1844 he was part owner of a framing/stationery shop patronized by Troyon, Isabey, and Millet. Through their advice he began painting in earnest, and in 1846 went to Paris where he stayed two years spending much of his time copying at the Louvre. He later returned to Normandy to paint his land and seascapes. In 1855 he took his first trip to Brittany, a popular locale for many 19th century French painters. In 1858 Boudin met Monet at Le Havre and invited him to paint outdoors with him, an experience that greatly influenced Monet's development. Through Monet he met Jongkind and these three worked together on the Normandy coast.
In 1874 Boudin contributed several works to the First Impressionist Exhibition, but he was never a full-fledged member of the group, because in contrast to their flickering brush strokes to capture atmospheric effects, he preferred to maintain a more realistic, objective approach. Like Monet, he could, however, attain coloristic effects that transformed a view to a shimmering evocation of everlasting light.
In the 1870s and 1880s Boudin worked in Belgium, Paris, and Brittany continuing to paint in a direct manner his favorite subjects of ships moored in port, people strolling on the beaches, and the occasional village or landscape. Boudin stated, “My only pleasure is painting,” and proved this by producing over 4,000 paintings, the majority depicting the Trouville area where he visited every summer from 1861 to the end of his life.