The son of a sailor, Eugène-Louis Boudin spent his youth on the Normandy coast of France. By 1844 he was part owner of a framing and stationery shop patronized by Troyon, Isabey, and Millet. Buoyed by their advice and encouragement, he began painting in earnest. He moved to Paris in 1846 and 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 the three artists worked together on the Normandy coast.
In 1874 Boudin contributed several works to the First Impressionist Exhibition, but he never became a full-fledged member of the group. In contrast to the Impressionists’ use of flickering brush strokes to capture atmospheric effects, Boudin preferred to maintain a more realistic, objective approach. Like Monet, he could attain coloristic effects that transformed a view to a shimmering evocation of everlasting light.
In the 1870s and 1880s Boudin continued 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 in Belgium, Paris, and Brittany. Boudin stated, “My only pleasure is painting,” and proved this by producing over 4,000 paintings, the majority of which depicts the Trouville area he visited every summer from 1861 until the time of his death.
Like Boudin’s most famous works, the current scene features a low horizon and long stretch of beach. Instead of Normandy and the bourgeois tourist, however, the painting features the coastline of Bretagne and its well-known inhabitants. The Breton Catholics were the inspiration of many 19th century paintings of rural life and archaic religious practice. Artists from Boudin to Gauguin captured their significant rituals and daily chores; this work shows a group of local women presumably sending the men to fish. Bretonnes sur la Plage highlights the landscape of Bretagne, an area with large vistas of sky, ocean, and dramatic bluffs and peaceful bays. Like its people, the undeveloped expanses of Bretagne were also popular subjects for 19th century artists.