Monday, January 22, 2018

Renoir and Friends: Luncheon of the Boating Party

In late summer of 1880, fourteen people relax and eat and converse on the riverside terrace of Maison Fournaise restaurant in Chatou, just outside Paris. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, or The Luncheon of the Boating Party, depicts the group and is considered to be the impressionist’s crowning masterpiece—part still life, part portrait, part landscape.

What are some of the stories surrounding Renoir’s tour de force? We were fortunate to gain insights at The Phillips Collection’s recent unique exhibition of more than forty paintings, pastels, prints, sketches, books, and photos from public museums and private collections all over the world.

For one thing, although the painting looks as though all fourteen people were there together for one lunch overlooking the Seine—and that was Renoir’s visionary goal—each pair (or perhaps three persons at a time) posed separately for him on that balcony. In fact, all the sittings took many weeks. Logistically, Renoir had to juggle myriad schedules of his friends and the restaurant’s need for the terrace. Compositionally, he had to envision a pleasing and natural-looking arrangement of people and activities on his canvas. Scientific art experts examining the painting with infrared technology and x-radiography discern that Renoir made many major and minor changes in order to invite the viewer into the very moment his friends were enjoying.

The Phillips had gathered art and artifacts to showcase relationships among Renoir and his circle of friends and supporters. As a longtime fan of Renoir and of Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, I already knew of some of those people. For example, Gustave Caillebotte was of course, a fellow artist. I knew Charles Ephrussi was an influential art critic and collector who introduced Renoir to prominent people who might commission portraits. Aline Charigot was Renoir’s wife. I had heard the name Jeanne Samary and names of other models in this painting. But I didn’t know much more.

Citing Renoir’s gift for friendship, the exhibit provided more details about each person. Caillebotte designed boats and raced his own sailboat at Argenteuil. He generously supported his artist friends with funds from his family’s textile business. He entrusted Renoir with his estate, and Renoir and Charigot named him godfather to their first son. Ephrussi collected many impressionists’ works. Although he did not ask Renoir to paint his portrait, his high-society recommendations contributed strongly to Renoir’s commercial success. Charigot was a seamstress, eighteen years Renoir’s junior, who lived near Renoir’s Parisian studio on rue Saint Georges. One of their sons remarked that once his father met Charigot, all the women he painted resembled her! (In this exhibit, I was struck with how paintings of Charigot as model glowingly reflected his love for her.) Samary was an actress with the Comédie-Française who sat for Renoir a dozen or so times when she was in her early twenties. Perhaps Renoir placed her in the painting surrounded by admirers because she was a pretty, famous actress. (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.)

Other models were friends I had not known about. I enjoyed learning about them all because it gave me a little better picture of what Renoir’s life might have been like in Belle Époque Paris. And it reminds me that we all need our circle of friends and supporters in careers, artistic endeavors, and in life in general. And we all have stories like those of Renoir and friends.

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