It’s August, and in the northern hemisphere it’s allegedly summer. This weekend I’m off to the beach, with a selection of paintings of beachgoers enjoying sitting, lying, swimming, even building sandcastles on beaches from Australia to Guernsey.
Although people have been working and taking leisure at the coast since time immemorial, activities like bathing don’t appear to have started to become popular in Europe until the eighteenth century.
Benjamin West’s painting of The Bathing Place at Ramsgate, from about 1788, appears to have been commissioned by William Russell Birch (1755-1834) for a collection of engravings of British landscapes, published in 1790 under the title Délices de la Grande Bretagne. Several paintings used for the engravings were by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and others were by notable painters including Gainsborough.
West shows the novel experience of bathing in the sea from one of the covered horse-drawn ‘bathing machines’, at the nascent resort on the Kent coast at Ramsgate. This had been growing in popularity following its adoption by members of the royal family and nobility, despite the typical English weather seen here.
Seventy years later, William Powell Frith’s painting of the almost identical view of Ramsgate Sands (1854) proved his breakthrough, and the first of his great social panoramas. In 1846, Ramsgate became connected by railway to London, from where the masses came to bathe in the waters. Frith holidayed there in 1851, when he made his first sketches on which he based this work.
On the beach is an eclectic mixture of different classes, reflected in their clothing and activities. Many of these are stereotypes who became stock characters in his paintings, and Frith included himself as the man behind the group at the far right.
Over on the other side of the Channel a decade later, Eugène Lepoittevin’s Bathing, Étretat Beach (1864) shows the French enjoying the beach. This painting was exhibited at the Salon in 1865, where it was so successful that it was bought by Emperor Napoleon III.
In the same summer, further along the same French coast, Eugène Boudin was laying the foundations of Impressionism with paintings like The Beach (1864), which shows an assorted gathering beneath one of Boudin’s wonderful skies.
From the same year, The Beach at Villerville shows a dusk setting in a small seaside community between Trouville and Honfleur.
I suspect that this small oil sketch by Winslow Homer showing a Beach Scene (c 1869) was painted on the east coast of the USA, although he had visited France between 1867-68.
By 1870, Claude Monet was taking over the mantle from Boudin, when he painted The Beach at Trouville, a typical summer scene on the Normandy coast, with parasols deployed to provide shade from the sun.
Édouard Manet’s On the Beach came just three years later.
Marià Fortuny painted Portici Beach (1874) in the heat of the Mediterranean. This small beach is on the waterfront of Naples, and has now been absorbed into the city. This is Fortuny’s most floridly Impressionist painting, and coincided with the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris.
In 1882, the American artist and naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale painted Bright House, Rehoboth Beach, on the Atlantic coast of the USA, in Sussex County of Delaware state. Until the late nineteenth century, this had been poor farmland, but in 1873 was established as a site for Methodist camp meetings. Its name is the Biblical Hebrew for broad spaces, and by 1893 it was becoming a popular beach resort for those working in Washington, DC. Despite the clothing worn here, this beach has a subtropical climate, making you wonder what all those good people were thinking of at the time.
Le Tréport is another small resort on the Channel coast of France near Dieppe, which had become a popular place to ‘take the waters’, and is shown in Évariste Carpentier’s Le Tréport, Bathing Time from 1882.
When Pierre-Auguste Renoir took a holiday on the small island of Guernsey in 1883, he made several oil sketches of beach scenes there, including Children on the Seashore, Guernsey. Although much closer to France than to the south coast of England, Guernsey, its larger sibling Jersey, and several smaller islands have remained steadfastly British.
Finally for today, the Belgian artist Alfred Stevens took to the beaches of northern and southern France in the 1880s, apparently for health reasons. This undated painting of a Woman Sat on the Beach could have been painted on either coast.