Rigging a studio boat

Where do ideas for exhibit components come from? This is a question I get asked all the time. Here at PEM, the answer is “from the content and the team.” So, to celebrate the opening of Impressionists on the Water, here’s a photographic record of the development of one idea: The studio boat.


A central theme of our new exhibition is the intimate relationship between the artists and the waterways of France.  Their experience with watercraft had a profound impact on their art. Some like Monet and Daubigny used small boats as floating studios to get out onto the water. Others, like Caillebotte, were experienced sailors. Of all the major pre-Impressionist and Impressionist artists, only Cezanne and Degas lacked boating connections. Roughly 85 percent of the artists had nautical roots. Impressionists on the Water brings together a unique collection of artworks that help explore an aspect of Impressionism that may be unfamiliar to many people.


Charles-François Daubigny, Le Voyage en Bateau (The Floating Studio). Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts ©Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


Claude Monet, Monet’s Studio-boat, (Le bateau-atelier). Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

The Idea

Since a major theme of the exhibition had to do with direct experience of being on the water, we thought it would great if we could give visitors a waterline view. The exhibition has several artworks depicting studio boats. Could we make our own and figure out a way to capture some of that feeling of being an artist creating on the water?  A large-scale projection of a waterway viewed from inside a constructed boat could be done. And if we captured a time-lapse film of an artist actually painting in an Impressionist style and displayed it on a canvas in the boat, you could see the natural world, and how  it was translated onto a canvas!

Below are my first embarrassingly crude sketches of what a studio boat might look like based on Manet’s paintings of Monet’s studio boat.

01-studio boat 02

01-studio boat 03

After some initial discussions about floor space and budget, I sketched a couple of ideas of a boat with a canvas cabin you would walk into from the stern and by looking out through the front you could see the boat’s bow and a canvas on an easel. In front of the boat, a large curved screen would display high-definition video of different waterway scenes.

Making it Real

As we researched studio boats more, and thought more concretely about trying to make the concept work, we quickly realized that my Monet-based idea would require too much space. Instead we turned our idea around 180 degrees and focused on Daubigny’s sketches of his studio boat where the view is constrained within a neat rectangular frame. As an added bonus, Daubigny actually sketched the interior of his own boat, so we could reproduce what was in there in addition to the painting supplies; pots and pans, coffee grinder, vegetables and all the things you’d need to live on the water.

02-01 - StudioBoatConcept

The Photoshop image of what we were trying to do. It’s a lot more effective than arm waving and written descriptions.

02-03-Daubigny Studio Boat inventory 052813

Paula Richter, curator for exhibitions and research, did some amazing sleuthing to identify the shadowy objects in the backgrounds of Daubigny’s sketches.

Finding the footage

The moving images on the big screen would be the thing that would make or break the experience. We spent quite a while researching existing video of French waterways without finding anything we could use. We needed the view to be filmed from a fairly low vantage point, and wanted scenes that would appeal to a painter. In the end, after a brief flirtation with the idea of going to France, renting a boat and getting what we wanted, we decided to explore more local options.  Chip Van Dyke, our media production manager, felt confident that he could find us enough interesting views along area waterways to satisfy the team. So over the next month or two, he spent weekend mornings and evenings hanging out of canoes and kayaks looking for scenic vistas. Read about that experience in this post.

Below are some of Chip’s test shots from various waterways.

03-01 Charles3

The Charles River

03-03 Essex2

The Essex River

03-05 Ipswich3

The Ipswich River

03-08 Salem2

Vista near Forest River in Salem, MA

Making paintings

As the hunt for video footage was underway, we started another hunt. Finding an artist able to paint in the manner we wanted, in the timeframe we wanted, and with a camera hanging over his or her shoulder, was a tall order. Luckily, PEM has many friends in the arts. In the end, we commissioned Nantucket-based artist Lisa Sawlit to create the three small oil paintings that would appear on the canvas. Lisa was able to grasp what we were trying to do, and more importantly, saw the whole project as an interesting experiment that would be kind of fun. A sense of humor is a great aid when you’re trying new things, and Lisa was a real trouper.

04-04 sketching

Lisa doing a quick charcoal sketch so we could test our camera setup and image capture system. Finding the right interval between photos was important, so Lisa could work in as normal a manner as possible while getting us many images as we needed for the final animation. Photo by Ed Rodley

05-00 080813_IOW-Developement

The floorplan. The Studio Boat sits right in the middle of House Gallery 3.

05-02 boat

Looking toward the stern. Just add videos and props. Photo by Ed Rodley

06-02 finished

Finished! Photo by Allison White/PEM


You have until February 17 to climb aboard our studio boat. Photo by Allison White/PEM

Video from the Studio Boat Immersive – Impressionists on the Water at PEM



  1. Suzanne Keating says:

    Wow!! Impressive installation indeed! I cannot wait to see it. The whole boat concept and video is delightfuly in keeping with the show’s intent. Lisa Sawlit’s artistry adds volumes to this visual.

  2. Lovely idea of how to use video to give visitors an experience of what it could have been like, and what it’s still like, to paint on the water.

  3. KAY BAKER says:

    This is a truly cool and unique idea. I won’t be able to experience it in person but feel like I already have because of this post.

  4. Ed Malouf says:

    Very nice narrative, great work!

    Does the boat rock?

  5. Ed Rodley says:

    Thanks for the feedback! Thus far it’s been well-received by our guests. Having the opportunity halfway through the show to sit and just take in something of the process seems to appeal to people, and the ability to showcase an artist’s process along with all the finished artworks gives it interpretive depth.

    In answer to your question, Ed, the boat doesn’t move. The video was all shot out of small boats, so it’s point of view moves a bit. One sign of the team’s success in creating an immersion experience is that I’ve heard people say it feels like they’re moving.

  6. Susan Hammer says:

    My husband and I visited the exhibit as guests of docent Barbara Kedesdy and thoroughly enjoyed every inch of it. We traveled in France and reminisced about our travels. My husband built wooden sail boats for a number of years for Pert Lowell, so seeing all the small boats was a treat for him. To add to the experience we used to have a small houseboat which we moored
    in Plum island Sound. Thank you for a wonderful exhibit. Susan Hammer

  7. Amazing, magnifique!

  8. Rita C. S. Mothe says:

    Maravilhoso poder “viajar no tempo” através desta experiencia, ainda que virtualmente. Uma ideia brilhante, parabéns!!!!!

  9. Bea Paul says:

    As a Docent, I took a group of Kindergartners to the exhibition. We looked at all the boats and found the paintings with the associated boats in them, a fun challenge, but the the Artist’s Studio Boat was especially fascinating with its “invisible”artist. Thank you for a super creative idea .

  10. Ed Rodley says:

    Thanks, all! The feedback has been very positive thus far, which makes us all very happy.

    Bea, I’d love to hear more about how your kids responded to the boat sometime. We could grab a coffee in the Atrium.

  11. Maureen McConnell says:

    As soon as I saw this boat I wondered, “Did Ed Rodley create this?” It’s wonderful! A beautiful and creative use of media, that’s non-obtrusive and perfectly suited to the art gallery experience. Congrats to Ed and his team!

  12. Ed Rodley says:

    Thanks Maureen, on behalf of the whole Impressionists team!

  13. Jim Olson says:

    Congratulations to the entire team for winning an AAM MUSE award for this project. Fantastic work.

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