Arts Everyday Living: Renoir’s Valentine—Luncheon of the Boating Party Returns

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In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m posting one of my most popular blogs…..

In what was once a private home, not far from the White House, is the most beautiful Renoir in the world, The Luncheon of the Boating Party.  An oasis of romance in a powerful city, famed for the hard reality of government, rather than a celebration of lunch and life by an Impressionist artist.

How does this masterpiece happen to be in the middle of Washington, D.C.? We can credit one man, Duncan Phillips, whose art museum and its collection is one of the gems of the nation’s capital, still bringing pleasure to scores of visitors long after his death in 1966. Phillips bought it in Paris in 1923 for $125,000 (an unprecedented amount then, pin money in today’s art market).  Imagine the reaction of his young wife, Marjorie, an artist herself, when he made the purchase from the family of Paul Durand-Ruel, an early promoter of the Impressionists.

The Phillips Collection has done extensive research on the painting, especially its subjects who are simply Renoir’s friends and colleagues sharing a luncheon on a glorious afternoon at the Restaurant Fournaise, located along the Seine River, just a short train ride from Paris.  They represent a diverse gathering of artists, writers, critics, businessmen, actresses, a journalist, and even the family of the restaurant owner.  Thirteen of them have been identified, with one “mystery” figure.*  So let’s get to know the members of this lively group. Since we can be assured, Renoir has extended, to each one of us, a personal invitation to the luncheon too!

Let’s start with Aline Charigot, the future wife of the artist.  In 1880, when Renoir began The Luncheon of the Boating Party, he was almost forty years old and he had experienced love before, or at least a few romantic affairs.

For preceding Aline were Lise, Renoir’s mistress and probably earliest model; then Margot below, who died tragically of smallpox when she was only in her twenties.

Renoir introduces us to Aline in Oarsmen at Chatou: the elegant woman, gracefully lifting her skirt, as she is about to board a leisure boat or gig waiting on the Seine. Was she at this point just another model to the artist who had portrayed dozens of women in the previous two decades of his career?   Or had Renoir already succumbed to the lovely twenty year old seamstress he had met in Paris.

Because just a year or so later, Aline reappears, now at the heart of The Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Aline immediately catches our eye, absorbed in playing with her little dog.  Is she about to kiss him? Renoir’s palette of rich and vibrant colors define her and the rest of her companions, while bright summer sunlight illuminates the entire room.

Aline has also attracted the attention of a gentleman seated directly across from her.  Can we guess his intentions?  He is the artist Gustave Caillebotte, who belonged to the Impressionist circle.   Famed not only for  masterful paintings such as Paris Street; Rainy Day (a popular draw at the Art Institute of Chicago), but for donating sixty seven works of art by his artistic comrades to the Louvre.

Dressed as a boater, in sleeveless white shirt and straw hat, Caillebotte casually straddles his chair while holding a cigarette in his hand.  Will Aline ever return his gaze?  Yet Caillebotte has his own admirer.  Another one of Renoir’s models, the actress Angele expresses her obvious interest, leaning closer to the distracted Caillebotte.  Her hat cocked alluringly, she tries to seduce him.

Look again, though, and you’ll spot HER suitor, hovering ardently over Mademoiselle Angele.  Maggiolo, an Italian journalist, seems confident in spite of his competition.  Can he succeed in this amorous game?

For is flirtation the key to Renoir’s masterpiece?

However, the muscular fellow directly behind Aline, on the opposite side of the painting, seems to have no object of desire.  Alphonse Fournaise, Jr. may be in boating attire, but he is actually the son of the restaurant’s owner.  Does he seem preoccupied?  Surveying his restaurant domain?

His sister’s mind is far from business as she poses coquettishly on the nearby railing.  Alphonsine (the feminine variation of the name) has been boating too. She wears a simple sailor blouse and plain yellow hat, contrasting to the flowery decorations of Aline’s fashionable bonnet.

Yet she continues the flirtation game with Baron Raoul Barbier.  Renoir has inexplicably portrayed the Baron, once the mayor of Saigon and from a wealthy family, with his back to us.  Is there a reason why?

But Jules Laforgue standing just beyond the Baron, seems to beckon us from the background shadows.  Is this poet and critic, in modest suit and cap, trying to communicate with us?

Is he instead listening to the conversation of his top hatted employer, art historian and collector Charles Ephrussi, who has probably just arrived on the Paris train?

While sitting below them, another Renoir model, Ellen Andree must be bored; her eyes glazed, self-absorbed.  Sipping wine through the long afternoon, she ignores the joy of living around her.  Even the anonymous escort (whom we can barely discern on the extreme right) cannot lift her spirits.*  For beauty does not always offer consolation.

Ellen Andree might also have a rival, Jeanne Samary, a renowned actress and star of several Renoir portraits, who is surrounded by enthusiastic suitors across the room.  The artist Paul Lhote (in boater apparel) and office worker Eugene Pierre Lestringuez (in a more formal suit), both crowd around her in evident pursuit.  Is Mademoiselle Samary’s response to cover her ears, a lady like ploy to cope with their romantic overtures?

Finally, the painting’s centerpiece, its piece de resistance:  the lunch.  Or its remnants of half-eaten fruit, undrunk wine that are somehow transformed into a miraculous display of Renoir’s magical brushwork.  Where glasses sparkle, plates swirl, and napkins move across the table.  Reminding us that what we perceive as the ordinary in our every day lives can truly become extraordinary, if seen through an artist’s eyes.

The identifications of the figures above are based mainly on the account of the Phillips Collection.

All of the preceding images are used for educational purposes only and in the U.S. public domain.

*The figure in profile next to Ellen Andre could be George Riviere, friend and promoter of Renoir.

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