Unloading Ships was painted a year after the first Impressionist Exhibition (1874), at which Boudin exhibited. A comparison with Antibes created some twenty years later provides a useful means of ascertaining the major changes, if any, in the artist's approach during the intervening years.
The composition of Ships consists of a large group of figures forming a frieze and disposed at the side of a ship not quite careened but certainly leaning heavily to one side. The horizon is partly obscured by the boat but the glimpse permitted to us by the artist is set fairly high. In fact, the horizontal middle of the painting coincides with the beach-line which also marks the height of most of the figures.
Antibes, on the other hand, shows a broad panorama, a grand sweep of bay with a double promontory or spit - one emphasized by a scattering of dark figures, the other by a small green sailing boat. In Ships, the viewer's eye is held more or less in the same plane by the ship and the linear extension of the disembarking passengers: in Antibes it is attracted to the left by the long boat in the foreground, and the adjacent figure 'under' the red roof, before being led around the bay to the fort on the rock, then onwards to the little green boat.
In densely crowding the figures of Ships into a defined and limited space, Boudin conveys a sense of bustling activity, a feeling further enhanced by the lowering of boxes and bundles over the ship's side. Other mysterious-looking possessions - chests, lumpy parcels and so forth - have just been off-loaded and are being guarded by women sitting on the beach. The stillness of these watchful women and of the stationary horses makes a telling contrast to the gesticulations of people in the crowd trying, perhaps, to identify their belongings or to engage some transport for them.
Antibes is a tranquil scene depending on its large expanse of serene sea, its few impassive figures, and the sparsely inhabited landscape for its sense of quiescence. Slow-moving clouds in an overcast, atmospheric sky, reflected in the limpid water, suggest a coming storm; but for the moment, all is still.
While the figures in both paintings are suggested rather than described in detail, in Ships we are encouraged to move our eyes within a limited area only, first to pick out the white Breton-style headdresses, then to note a vivid yellow blouse here, a blue one there. The disposition of the Antibes figures waiting on the quay and diminishing in size, together with the masts cleaving land and sky, have quite a different function. It falls to them to assist the spectator in visually measuring the distance between boat, port, and distant hills.
The lack of definition in Boudin's figures is not entirely unusual for him, but the treatment of the sky in each of the works is so decidedly different that we are forced to an even closer scrutiny. The sky in Ships has the appearance of having been scribbled in with a lead pencil, perhaps to act as a ground for some further elaboration that did not take place. However, in the case of Antibes, even a casual glance at the sky and its approximation in the sea will demonstrate the reason Corot proclaimed Boudin 'king' or 'master of the skies:
Sir Edward Hayward purchased not only these two paintings for his private collection, but also recommended to the Art Gallery of South Australia that they acquire a Boudin seascape, St. Vaast, similar in key and in composition to Antibes.
Although basically a self-taught painter, Boudin's particular approach can be partly attributed to influences from, amongst others, Millet, from Isabey in interpreting the sea, from Daubigny in the description of atmosphere, from Troyon in the disposition of groups and from Corot in the rendition of tonal values. Moreover, his special proficiency lay in his distinctive handling of light and the variation of the sky in all of its moods. A naturalist painter, Boudin is most often referred to as a forerunner of Impressionism.