This type of painting was familiar to the impressionists and was commissioned by French kings to help plan their navies, Finamore said.
While such utilitarian works may seem remote from impressionism, the gallery provides a bridge toward the latter style in “The Boat Trip,” a series of etchings by Charles-Francois Daubigny from 1861.
Where traditional marine painters contrived their images in a studio, Daubigny captured scenes in a realistic style while working on a boat, traveling France’s inland waterways. In the process, Daubigny, who directly influenced Monet, helped inaugurate impressionism’s preference for capturing the play of light while working en plein air, or outdoors.
Monet’s painting of his own floating studio is included in the show, and an installation in one of the galleries re-creates an artist’s boat, where visitors can look over the stern at projected video of the Ipswich River.
In addition to 60 paintings in both oil and watercolor, the exhibit includes photographs, a large number of boat models and two full-sized boats.
The models allow visitors to see how impressionists transformed what they were painting, while stressing the fact that they had specific kinds of boats in mind. Most of the artists had firsthand experience of nautical life and would have appreciated the nature and function of each vessel they painted.
Most of the galleries reflect France’s marine geography, Finamore said, grouping paintings by subject matter such as ports and harbors, or rivers around Paris.
The full-sized boats in the show include a sleek rowboat called a gig, which was owned by French novelist Emile Zola. It appears in a gallery across from a painting by Auguste Renoir, “Oarsmen at Chatou,” which depicts a gig in action.
A figure on the riverbank, in the foreground of this painting is believed to be Gustave Caillebotte, who helped Zola choose his gig and is in several ways the star of this show.