The large and arresting painting by the Barbizon painter Charles-Françoise Daubigny presages a more modern idea of painting than was the norm when it was done in 1855. The Barbizon artists often seem, in hindsight, prescient. At close to four feet wide and two high, "Villerville Seen from Le Ratier" provides a panoramic sweep filled for its top two-thirds by a cloud-filled sky. The bottom is occupied by rocky hummocks covered with seaweed left by the tide. Only a surprisingly narrow band along the low horizon depicts a headland and beach. It's a masterful work that would not be out of place in a show by top-flight landscape painters of our own day (think Rackstraw Downes). The depth of Daubigny's artistic vision is still underappreciated.
It makes sense that the Normandy-born painter Eugène-Louis Boudin has more paintings here (six) than any other. Along with his friend and mentor Johan Barthold Jongkind and a few others, Boudin provides a view of life along the Normandy coast, of shipping, fishing, the harbors, and, in the delightful little picture "Beach Scene near Trouville," a sophisticated view of the leisured classes' social life on the beach, with long dresses and tall hats for the ladies, jackets and straw boaters for the gents.
Boudin was not an Impressionist (like his younger friend Monet), and you can detect the differing undercurrents between his method and the technically similar but conceptually different work by Camille Pissarro, "The Jetty at LeHavre, High Tide, Morning Sun" (1903). Pissarro was not the greatest Impressionist — that title probably belongs to Monet — but he was the intellectual and organizational godfather of the movement. In all the Boudin paintings the subject is easy to make out and painterly irregularities are a style of representation. The subject in the Pissarro is not at all clear; there are people, boats, and a jetty, but they are excuses for variations in light and dark, for color and paint relationships. It's a subtle but important difference. Given the enviable but unlikely assignment to choose between living with a Boudin or a Pissarro, I'd pick the Pissarro. Every time.
Many of the later artists seem to be there because it was the place to go. There's a little Marcel Duchamp painting of a cliff from 1905 that bears no hint of the upcoming "Nude Descending a Staircase," let alone the cerebral direction he was to take that resulted, among other things, in both conceptual and pop art. The Yves Tanguy "Untitled" (1937), seems a bit ridiculous, an excuse for vacationing, but then, Surrealism was designed to be ridiculous.
The show was curated by the Portland Museum's Margaret Burgess, who has done a fine job indeed. There are four really good Monets, a good Matisse, and much else of interest. The tone is set by a Félix Vallotton painting "Vuillard Drawing at Honfleur," (1902). Vuillard walks along the summer shore up to his ankles in greenery, with his jacket, cape, flat cap, square beard, working in his sketchbook. What could be better?
"The Draw of the Normandy Coast: 1860-1960" | at Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq, Portland | through September 3 | portlandmuseum.org