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Day at the Beach

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Members of the art commission in his hometown of Le Havre objected to Eugène Boudin's subject matter: the vast horizon of the Normandy coast and the middle-class people visiting it. Perhaps preferring academy-endorsed subjects such as history or morality, they seemed to overlook that Boudin (1824-1898) was revolutionizing painting, by not only what he was painting but also how.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' "The First Impressionist: Eugène Boudin" consists of oil and watercolor seascapes that combine awe-inspiring and timeless grandeur with specific references to time and place. Boudin's sea, a seemingly endless expanse, rolls and darkens under even larger skies of billowing clouds. Sea and sky dominate the ships and industrial ports that are the nominal subjects.

In "Festival in the Harbor of Honfleur," Boudin paints boats lined along the shore, decorated with colorful flags. The atmosphere is dark, and turbulent wind seems to rock the boats and wreak havoc with the flags. Boudin's paint is thick and furiously applied, boldly describing the chaotic nature of the moment. Up close, the painting is a wild flurry of color and abstract shapes.

His ability to represent the momentary nature of the scenery -- changing weather patterns and ladies' skirts as they balloon with the wind, for example — is as formidable as his ability to capture the scale of it. Crystallized impressions of the moment surface in every image, from casual studies produced on the beach to extended studio work. (It was this deft brushwork that inspired Claude Monet and landed Boudin in the first impressionist exhibition in 1874.)

No camera can freeze temporary conditions of nature like Boudin can, and that's why "The First Impressionist" should be experienced even if you're not a fan of impressionism. S



"The First Impressionist: Eugène Boudin" runs through Feb. 17 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Call 340-1400 or visit www.vmfa.state.va.us.

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