Luncheon of the Boating Party ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted Luncheon of the Boating Party (Le déjeuner des canotiers) over a two-month period during the summer of 1880, using some of his friends as models. The location shown in the painting is a restaurant terrace overlooking the Seine river in a place called Chatou, not far from Paris. It was an ambitious undertaking for Renoir, both in its size and composition. He was nearing forty and he hadn’t been as successful as a painter as he once was. Many critics dismissed Impressionism as a genuine movement; it hadn’t been fully embraced by the art-loving world. Many believed that Impressionism as an art movement was dead, or that it had never been alive in the first place. Renoir wanted to prove the critics wrong.
Luncheon of the Boating Party is a novel by Susan Vreeland that tells the story of the painting, how it came to be and at what price, the people involved, and the time (1880s) and place (Paris). Among the fourteen people in the painting are an actress; an illiterate seamstress (who would later become Renoir’s wife and bear him three sons); a homosexual painter (Gustave Caillebotte, seen in the foreground of the painting on the right); an avid canotier (boatman); the daughter of the proprietor of the place (leaning on the railing to the left); her brother (in the singlet on the left); an art critic; a wealthy aristocrat (in the top hat in the background). With this mix of people, Renoir wanted to show la vie moderne, or life as he believed it to be in 1880s France.
Luncheon of the Boating Party is a historical novel, not exactly a biography of Renoir, well-researched (if we are to believe the author’s note at the end of the book), and based on facts where facts were available. That means that some (a lot?) of the book is made up by the novelist, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate portrayal of Parisian life in the late nineteenth century or of the life and times of Renoir. We are gratified to see at the end that Renoir is fully vindicated and that Luncheon of the Boating Party was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and Renoir as a genius. It stands today as the finest example of the Impressionist style.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp