Painted in 1863, Scène de plage à Trouville is a beautiful early example of Boudin's most celebrated subject, the beach at Trouville. As Jean Selz has noted, “What fascinated Boudin at Trouville and Deauville was not so much the sea and ships but the groups of people sitting on the sand or strolling along the beach: fine ladies in crinolines twirling their parasols, pompous gentlemen in top hats, children and little dogs playing on the sand. In the harmony of the colours of the elegant clothes he found a contrast to the delicacy of the skies” (J. Selz, Eugène Boudin, New York, 1982, p. 57).
By the second half of the nineteenth century, Trouville had become a fashionable summer retreat for the French aristocracy, and the people-watching opportunities proved to be of great artistic inspiration to Boudin during his regular summers there throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Captivated by the lively groupings of these elegant leisure classes, he rendered his subjects in quick, impressionistic brushstrokes highlighted by bright blue and red accents. What fascinated the artist the most, however, was the compositional contrast between these densely grouped men, women, children, dogs and tents and the vast expanses of the sky against which they are depicted. Boudin's interest in capturing the fleeting effects of sunlight on sumptuous fabrics and the effect of a windy day on the billowing dresses and tents, so masterfully explored in the present painting, was to have a profound influence on many Impressionist painters.
In the present work, a large expanse of sky occupies more than two thirds of the composition with a thin band of sea marking the distant horizon. The foreground is occupied by an area of sand and the clusters of fashionable holidaymakers, placed against the low horizon line. It is through the rhythmic grouping of the figures and their colorful clothing that the artist articulates space and demonstrates his nuanced understanding of pictorial harmony.
In Scène de plage à Trouville the artist demonstrates his exceptional sensitivity as an observer and recorder of society and nature. As Vivien Hamilton writes, “Although Boudin preferred painting groups of people to painting individuals, he succeeded in capturing the characteristic gestures, movements and costumes of the individual figures with astonishing accuracy. The artistic challenge presented by the subject was not only the representation of movement, color and light but also the successful incorporation of the human figure into the landscape. At their best, the beach scenes vibrate with subtle nuances of light, color, shade and movement, tiny and hasty specks of pure color simultaneously dramatizing the surface and bringing the whole into harmony” (V. Hamilton, Boudin at Trouville, London, 1992, p. 63). The artist's practice of painting largely en plein air (though often finishing his paintings in the studio) enabled him to endow his works with an energetic immediacy and freshness. As Boudin inscribed in one his notebooks, “Beaches. Produce them from nature as far as is possible... things done on the spot or based on a very recent impression can be considered as direct paintings” (quoted in Gustave Cahen, Eugène Boudin, sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris, 1900, p. 183).