Boudin, who owned a painting and frame shop in Le Havre, first painted at the seaside resort town of Trouville in 1862. Heeding the poet Charles Baudelaire's exhortation to paint modern life, Boudin was attracted to the scenes of Deauville and Trouville's beaches as they were thronged with vacationers, whose seasonal arrival transformed the town into 'the Summer Boulevard of Paris. His so-called "crinoline" paintings, named for the ladies' fashionable hoopskirts, accounted for nine of the eleven paintings that Boudin showed at the Salon between 1864 and 1869, and won him wide notice.
The 1860s crinoline paintings were executed in the studio on a large or medium canvas format that was suitable for formal exhibition venues. At the same time, Boudin painted several plein air studies on small panels, a support that was easier to handle outdoors. During the 1870s these accounted for most of the Boudin's Trouville and Deauville beach scenes, and by the middle of the following decade, when the present painting was executed, he used this format for all of his paintings in this genre. Boudin had essentially treated the earlier crinoline paintings as landscapes seen from a distance, with low horizons and broad expanses of sky, while in the later panels he painted his subjects close-up, as if he were walking along the strand among them.
The later panels, moreover, show the growing influence of Impressionism on Boudin's work, mainly through the artist's friendship with the younger Claude Monet, another painter who hailed from Le Havre, and who had earlier looked to Boudin as a mentor. The handling in the studies of the later 1880s is especially fresh and spontaneous. Boudin has clearly delighted in the deft use of a "loaded" brush, and as a result of this more painterly manner, the solid forms and patiently observed detail in the earlier paintings have yielded to the blur of movement and the more fleeting atmospheric effects seen here.
In Scène de plage, Boudin has immortalised a spontaneous, fleeting moment on the seafront. Indeed, there is a vivid, almost visceral sense of the wind blowing and people moving. It is akin to a snapshot, an ephemeral instant captured for posterity. The informality of the scene is heightened by the presence of the bathing machines. These were mobile constructions designed to protect the modesty of bathers during those more prudent times: the entire hut would be moved to the water, allowing people to change their clothes and enter the water without exposure to the wider public. While the presence of these huts, then, implies a certain behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on the beach, they also serve as important punctuation marks in the composition. Their rigid, angular sides, reflecting the light, add to the rhythm of the picture, adding a sense of balance akin to the later still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi.
At this time, Boudin was well aware of the golden thread that others perceived in his delicate, elegant beach scenes. In addition to reaching new pinnacles in his painting, he was also becoming more aware of the workings of the art market, and was dedicating more time to the French capital, returning to the Norman coast that was his home mainly for artistic campaigns. During his time spent in Normandy, he was happy to be reunited with Claude Monet. Both of the artists had common grounds in their concepts of what to depict, and how. Looking at Scène de plage, this is somewhat in evidence: the picture bears many of the hallmarks of the height of French Impressionism.