Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland has a reputation for writing well researched and well written novels about artists. Her most recent book Luncheon of the Boating Party lives up to our expectations.
I came across scraps of information about the life of the artist Auguste Renoir in a couple of books I read recently, in Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell where he is a friend to the painter Claude Monet, and again in The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal where he is mentioned as a painter whose work is collected by Charles Ephrussi in Paris in the 1880’s, just as Impressionism was becoming fashionable as part of La Vie Moderne.
Renoir, by the age of 39, had a reputation for painting portraits – family portraits and women in the nude. He lived the quintessential Montmartre artist’s life – struggling to make a living and bedding a string of actresses who modeled for him. In this novel we meet Renoir at a point in his career when he has been experimenting, with other artists of his time, with a new style of painting which became known as Impressionism. Of course now Impressionist Art is highly regarded but that was not so at the time, except by some very astute art collectors. Renoir questions whether or not he is wise to continue to paint this way but is compelled to make one more painting in the Impressionist style before giving it up to go back to the unsatisfying but lucrative portrait painting.
Renoir chooses his location, a popular Inn and restaurant on a river outside of Paris. He knows the family and they agree to allow him to rent a balcony overlooking the river, where he proposes to paint a group of people enjoying lunch and conversation. There we meet the lovely daughter of the Inn keeper and the others who will model for this painting. The others include the wealthy banker and art collector Charles Ephrussi, as well as other painters and actresses and models, and for a time the writer Guy de Maupassant. Renoir hired and paid the models, who were required to come to the restaurant each Sunday for a period of several summer weekends. They spent time boating, eating a generous and beautifully prepared meal, and then posed to Renoirs direction until he was satisfied with his days work – or the sun set.
We learn about Auguste Renoir himself, a man with a reputation with women – and a man who always put his art first. And, we learn a great deal about art as we read, especially about the Impressionist movement. We read about the change happening at this time in the way in which art was exhibited and the rise of commercial galleries. We learn about life during the Siege of Paris, which all of these characters had lived through only ten years earlier, during the Franco Prussian War.
I found myself looking at the painting over and over again as I read, as the painting’s journey progresses through the novel and changes are made – people added or removed by the magic of oil paint as Renoir made decisions about the composition. The painting itself hangs in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. where we can all have the pleasure of viewing it, which was Renoir’s desire. Susan Vreeland saw the painting there some years ago. With much research she discovered who they were, and with her writer’s imagination began to invent stories about the people portrayed. Luncheon of the Boating Party is the happy result of this author’s ability to blend fact and fiction into a very revealing novel.