Summer is not only a favourite subject of music artists. It has also been a frequent motif in many famous paintings. Especially, during the 19th century and the 20th century, when the modernistic art movements began to develop, many painters, from Impressionists to post-Impressionists, as well as other Modernists globally, demonstrated the tendency to depict everyday outdoor scenes, many of which had to do with summer.
During the 19th century, a group of painters, who would then become known as the Impressionists, began in an almost revolutionary way to deal with painting in the countryside, the processing of colours in “plein air” (outdoors), but also the rendering of figures in motion. They argued that all nature-themed works should be done “on site” and not in the workshop.
Nature became for those artists a favourite subject, commonly associated with everyday human activities within it. And since during summer, human activity is connected to the sea, to boating, to fishing, to the beach and, eventually, to bathing, it was, therefore, very common for those painters to work on such themes.
The summer, indeed, with its climatic conditions, the intense sunshine and natural light it offered and the strong contrasts of light and shade, helped much the Impressionists to develop their technique. Thus, numerous wonderful summer paintings were created during that period, the subjects of which were related to the sun, sky, sea, beach, boating, fishing and swimming.
We have gathered 20 representative paintings of the Impressionist era to admire how those revolutionaries of art perceived summer and how they brought it to our eyes. In this article we present you the first 10 of them. An article covering the next 10 will follow.
Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) was one of the first landscape painters to paint outdoors. Boudin was a marine painter and expert in the rendering of all that goes upon the sea and along its shores. Baudelaire and Corot called him the “King of the skies”. Indeed, while Boudin was clearly interested in depicting the realities of his era, his great theme was the fleeting play of light on water and clouds.
Boudin quickly established the pattern he would follow throughout his career: in summer he traveled to paint outdoor sketches at the seaside. He stayed along the Channel coast, mostly in Normandy and Brittany. In 1862 he began to make quickly brushed watercolours of fashionable beachside visitors who vacationed at Normandy beach resorts, that would have been especially appealing (and affordable) mementos for the tourists. Here we can see one of those paintings, the “Beach scene”.
Soon, the depiction of lines of fashionably dressed figures on the beach or promenade seen from a distance, became one of his favourite themes. He has produced a great number of such paintings at the beaches of Villerville, Deauville and Trouville.
According to Boudin “everything that is painted directly and on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vivacity of touch which one cannot recover in the studio.” Eventually Boudin would paint almost entirely en plein air, saying that one brushstroke placed outdoors was of more value than two days spent in the studio. His work foreshadowed impressionist concerns with atmosphere and the changing effects of weather and light.
The direct freshness of his works was a particular influence for Monet, who as a teenager worked alongside Boudin. They were lifelong friends. When they were both spending the summer at Trouville, the two men sometimes painted side-by-side in the open air.
Boudin’s series of beach paintings are believed to have inspired many generations of painters who wanted to depict human figures within landscapes. As the modest Boudin himself wrote: “I may well have had some small measure of influence on the movement that led painters to study actual daylight and express the changing aspects of the sky with the utmost sincerity.”
Many of his paintings are exhibited at the Washington National Gallery (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Melon).
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life, as well as a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. He developed his own simple and direct style that would be heralded as innovative and serve as a major influence for future painters.
In 1856, Manet opened a studio. His style in this period was characterized by loose brush strokes, simplification of details, and the suppression of transitional tones. Manet painted the upper class enjoying more formal social activities.
A major early work of Manet is “The Luncheon on the Grass” (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) – originally titled “The Bath” (Le Bain), created in 1862 and 1863. The painting features a nude woman on a picnic with two fully dressed men. Her body is starkly lit and she stares directly at the viewer. The two men, dressed as young dandies, sit with her. In front of them, the woman’s clothes, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread are displayed, as in a still life. In the background, yet too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground, a scantily dressed woman bathes in a stream. The man on the right wears a flat hat with a tassel, a kind normally worn indoors.
Some assume that the landscape of the painting is meant to be l´Ille Saint’Ouen, which was just up the Seine from Manet´s family property in Gennevilliers . Manet often used real models and people he knew as reference during his creation process. In this case, he employed model Victorine Meurent, his wife Suzanne, his future brother-in-law Ferdinand Leenhoff, and one of his brothers to pose.
What many critics find controversial and shocking about this painting is the interaction, or lack thereof, between the three main subjects in the foreground and the woman bathing in the background. Moreover, there are many contrasting qualities to the painting that juxtapose and distance the female nude from the other two male subjects. For example, the feminine versus the masculine, the nakedness of the woman versus the fully clothed men, and the white color palette versus the dark color palette creates a clear social difference between the men and the woman. Additionally, some viewers are intrigued by the questions raised by the gaze of the nude woman. It is indeterminable whether she is challenging or accepting the viewer, looking past the viewer, engaging the viewer, or even looking at the viewer at all.
The work is now in the Orsay Museum, in Paris. A smaller, earlier version can be seen at the Courtauld Gallery, in London.
“On the Beach” (1873) is a brilliant example of Manet’s rapid brushwork and his gift for immortalizing the instant. Looking at the warm beige of the fine sand, one becomes a witness to the passage of time, while the waves on the shore below beat out the measure. The sea, with boats running full sail before the wind, reaches almost to the top of the picture. This is Manet at his finest – with his delicate shades of gray, Parisian gray, and his deft brushwork, which with a few strokes suggests the foam of the waves breaking on the beach.
Above all, this picture shows Manet’s remarkable gift for placing his accents. The whole effect would be sketchy, fluid, and woolly were it not for the touches of black or blue-gray that make the figures stand out unforgettably from their background. The whole atmosphere of the picture is one of repose, relaxation, and leisure.
This memorable work justified the penetrating comments of Jacques deBietzon Manet in 1894: “An artist to the very core, an artist in his faults, an artist even in his omissions, entirely wrapped up in himself, absorbed in recording his impressions in the changing skies of his emotions, he lived only to give expression to the idea that possessed him, the idea of light.”
“Boating” (1874), was painted in the summer of 1874, when Manet was at the family home at Gennevilliers on t, he Seine, opposite Argenteuil. At this time he was frequently joined By Claude Monet, who had been living in Argenteuil for some time, and occasionally by Renoir. Manet painted Monet and his wife and it was at this period that he came closest to adopting the impressionist idiom of working in the open air, using short rapid brushstrokes and adopting a much higher key than in his earlier work. This painting however is in many ways still tied to Manet’s traditional practice. It is much larger than the portable canvases Monet and Renoir were using at this time and this would suggest it was done in the studio. Similarly, there is none of the apparent spontaneity that characterized impressionist works of this period, particularly in the rather contrived nature of the composition, which owes much to careful planning and is closest in spirit to Japanese prints.
The theme has been covered by many artists (Isaac Hayes, Joe Cocker, BB King, Quincy Jones etc.) but the original version still sounds modern and exciting. The painting is actually exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Oscar-Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was the founder of impressionist painting who is seen as a key precursor to modernism, especially in his attempts to paint nature as he perceived it. Monet insisted that the artist should leave his studio entirely and not paint a single stroke except in front of his subject. He had converted a boat into a laboratory so that he could study the changes and effects of the riverside landscape.
During his long career, he was the most consistent and prolific practitioner of impressionism’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to “plein air” (outdoors) landscape painting.
“The beach at Trouville” and the eight others Monet made in the summer of 1870 show the Normandy coast as a holiday destination, with wide sandy beaches, bracing air and impressive seaside architecture.
Monet painted it during the weeks he spent at Trouville following his marriage, with his new wife Camille and their son Jean. Camille posed for most of the beach scenes that Monet painted during their stay. Here she is shown relaxing with a woman who has been variously identified as Madame Boudin, Camille’s sister or a member of Monet’s family. The composition is daring and innovative. Monet shows the two women in close-up, their figures apparently casually arranged and cropped by the picture frame, rather like a snapshot. Grains of sand blown by the sea breeze onto the canvas that became embedded in the wet paint reveal that it was painted at least partly on the spot. Colours are mainly limited to tones of yellow, grey, blue and black. Facial features and costume details are dashed in briefly with flat strokes of paint: the main focus here is on the play of light and shade. The bright sunlight is conveyed in bold strokes of brilliant white, and the women shade their faces with parasols. It is possible that Camille is wearing a veil to protect her skin. In her pale summer dress and flowery hat, she seems lost in thought, while her companion, dressed in contrasting black, seems intent on reading her newspaper. A child’s shoe hooked on the back of the chair may belong to the three-year-old Jean. Distant figures, a tent and other features are sketched in with a few strokes of the brush. The flag on the flagpole and the scudding clouds tell us that despite the dazzling sunlight this is a breezy day.
The picture may appear to sum up the carefree atmosphere of a summer holiday, but life for the Monet family was far from carefree at the time. France had just declared war on Prussia, and the future must have looked very uncertain. At the end of the summer season Monet sailed for England to escape the fighting in Paris, but only after a delay because he had been unable to pay the bill for his Trouville hotel.
The painting is found at the London National Gallery.
In his painting “The garden at Sainte – Adresse” (1867), Monet depicted the summer atmosphere at the homonymous resort, on the English Channel, near Le Havre, where he spent that summer. It was in a garden of the resort with a view of Honfleur on the horizon, that he painted this picture, which combines smooth, traditionally rendered areas with sparkling passages of rapid, separate brushwork, and spots of pure colour. The models were probably Monet’s father, Adolphe, in the foreground, Monet’s cousin’s wife Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre at the fence, Adolphe, her father and, perhaps, Sophie, her sister, the woman seated with her back to the viewer.
The elevated vantage point and relatively even sizes of the horizontal areas emphasize the two-dimensionality of the painting. The three horizontal zones of the composition seem to rise parallel to the picture plane instead of receding into space. The subtle tension resulting from the combination of illusionism and the two-dimensionality of the surface remained an important characteristic of Monet’s style. The painting is now in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was bought in 1967, with special contributions given or bequeathed by friends of the Museum.
“Bain à la Grenouillère“, was painted by Monet in 1869. It depicts Flowerpot Island, also known as the Camembert, and the gangplank to La Grenouillère, a popular middle-class resort consisting of a spa, a boating establishment and a floating restaurant-café on the Seine at Croissy-sur-Seine, near Bougival.
An interesting detail is that, when Monet was working on the painting, he was accompanied by Pierre Auguste Renoir, who also painted the scene at the same time, with the two impoverished friends and fellow artists sitting side by side. Monet and Renoir both recognized in La Grenouillère an ideal subject for the images of leisure, they hoped to sell and earn some money.
As in his earlier picture of the Garden at Sainte-Adresse, Monet concentrated on repetitive elements – the ripples on the water, the foliage, the boats, the human figures – to weave a fabric of brushstrokes which, although emphatically brushstrokes, retain a strong descriptive quality. The painting is now in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(to be continued)