THE FRENCH painters Boudin, Monet, Courbet, and many others, landed on the Normandy beaches - Fecamp, Etretat, Trouville, Ste- Adresse - with one objective in view: to record a subject matter relatively unfamiliar to their predecessors, and perhaps even a little frivolous by the stern standards of the Academy. The play of light on waves. The louring of clouds over sea. The colourfully flirtatious pennants of boats. And, most beguiling of all to some of them, the disporting of aristocrats in brief flight from Paris (just six hours by train), overburdened with crinolines, servants, parasols. And, perhaps, even those unstoppable machines called children.
When did this all happen? From about the middle of the 19th- century onward. It was then that Eugene Boudin, Monet's teacher, showed his young pupil what was to be gained, and how much could be learnt as a painter, by observing such mutable scenes. Boudin himself, as this exhibition of 60 canvases by these "sea painters" of Normandy reveals, was in early and earnest pursuit of the postcard market. How else to escape direst poverty?
Some of the best of his canvases here are like charming friezes of sheer, overdressed frivolity. Here comes the Empress Eugenie in The Beach at Trouville, for example, leading her flock of aristocrats across a windswept beach, dressed in white, with lots of colourful companions. We see the dibs and dabs of yellow, red, blue of hooped skirts; the poke, poke of ivory canes mark-making across the sand, and, just off centre, a couple of dogs delighting in each other's nether parts. It is proto- Impressionist in manner.
Monet did things slightly differently. One of his very famous paintings, The Beach at Trouville (again), stars in this show, though to be famous is not necessarily to be great. Here, Monet has zoomed up close to two sumptuously dressed young women - one of them, in white again, is Monet's wife. She wears a fashionably tiny hat that perches on her head like a kitten. …