On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy

oil painting depicting three female figures on sandy shore, surrounded by various objects, with sky and coast in background

Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828)
On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy
ca. 1825–27
Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13 1/16 in.
Collection Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah M. Bogert

Location: South Hall

Richard Parkes Bonington was born in 1802, in Arnold, near Nottingham, England; as a teenager he moved to France with his parents. From a young age, he demonstrated extraordinary skill at drawing and painting in watercolors. In 1817, Bonington started working in Calais with the painter François Louis Thomas Francia, and a year later he moved with his family to Paris, where he became acquainted with Eugène Delacroix and later studied with Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. He led a peripatetic life, mainly across France, painting the scenery of different areas of the country and never settling for long periods of time. His career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis, on September 23, 1828, one month shy of his twenty-sixth birthday. 

Many of Bonington’s paintings focused on beaches in northern France at low tide. Two thirds of On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy is devoted to a leaden sky, ranging from the intense blue of the uppermost left-hand corner to the large swathes of billowing clouds. The lower portion depicts a sandy beach, still wet from the receding tide. Along the beach, some boats lie forsaken, but a few white sails on the sea and distant rooftops suggest an expanse of coast where settlements thrive. Many of the sails are painted with simple dots of white pigment, others are effectively scratched into the surface. In the foreground of the painting is an exquisite  still life. Various objects are discarded on the sandy shore: a wooden door, a saddle, the carcasses of boats. Among these objects, three young women wearing Picardy costumes — possibly a mother and her two daughters — have settled, surrounded by baskets and plates containing the catch of the day, a few translucent fish and rays. The surfaces are sensitively rendered with brushstrokes that describe the shifting light on the beach, revealing the poetry of this quotidian scene, apparently unimportant but beautiful in its extraordinary clarity.

The painting’s author and subject make it an especially compelling complement to Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, the exhibition of Turner’s harbor scenes — paintings, watercolors, and prints — most of which were produced about the same time Bonington’s career was flourishing.