Library Journal says of this novel, “One of the most significant paintings of the Impressionist period is Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, and it’s hard to imagine that a novel could do it justice. Yet this new work from Vreeland does just that.” It reveals the mysteries of the painting with all the life, color, vibrancy, and subtlety of the painting itself. In the painting, Renoir depicted a group of Parisians—including several of his friends and lovers—on a restaurant terrace overlooking the Seine near Paris. In the novel, Renoir and these same revelers take us into their own lives—behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, and to artists’ studios, cafés, cabarets, salons, and regattas—while reflecting tumultuous changes as Paris careens toward modernity. With the impending and agonizing breakup of the Impressionist group and a huge change in the marketing of art imminent, Renoir faces a double crisis in art and love.
In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Susan Vreeland, an exquisite and passionate chronicler of historical paintings, takes the reader through the process of painting by way of Renoir, the many models in the painting, and the relationships he had with them—a complex mix of paint, color, and texture as well as the personalities of the myriad men and women in his life. The process of the painting is always the main issue, revealing the artist’s difficulties and ultimately his triumph, but the models’ lives display such French cultural issues as the residual trauma of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, changes in marriage traditions, the rise of feminism, the decline of old institutions, the yearning for personal expression, and the explosion of creativity in the arts, journalism, music, and literature.
Renoir had wanted to paint boaters on the terrace of La Maison Fournaise in Chatou for years. With the nineteenth-century advent of “le weekend,” Parisians flocked to the boathouse and restaurant to rent rowing skiffs, eat good food, and relax with friends and family by the river. Throughout the 1870s, Renoir often visited La Maison Fournaise to enjoy its convivial atmosphere and rural beauty, and to paint scenes nearby. In the late summer of 1880, he realized the light was perfect, but the complexity of his idea for a painting and the time constraint of the season gave him just two months—only seven or eight Sundays—of good light. He had to hurry.
Forgoing any preliminary drawings, sketches, or oil studies, Renoir went straight to the canvas. Now he had the setting, but he needed his subjects. Renoir wanted to construct a painting about modern life—the new, liberated freedom of la vie moderne. The patrons of the Maison were a ready blend of people from different classes and occupations: businessmen, artists, actors, writers, society women, seamstresses, and shop girls. He assembled fourteen men and women—some of them friends, some of them lovers, some he’d never met before—into a vibrant portrait of modern society.
The resultant painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and Vreeland’s own dazzling addition to her already outstanding body of work convey the recreational, leisurely mood of the setting on the Seine as well as the gusto, hedonism, and art of the era. Renoir’s diverse group embodies the modern Parisian society that embraced and promoted liberty, equality, and fraternity.
“Amazingly engrossing . . . lovely prose . . . [a] riveting, complex novel.”—Booklist
“Vreeland’s love for Renoir is made palpable in this brilliant reconstruction.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Vreeland achieves a detailed and surprising group portrait, individualized and immediate.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Vreeland] creates a profoundly moving portrait of the creative process.”—Library Journal
Why did you choose Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party as a subject for a novel? Does it have some significance to you personally?
There are many reasons. Luncheon of the Boating Party, owned by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has served Americans as a symbol of France and French culture, both of which I love, and is as evocative and triumphant an image as that other emissary of France, the Statue of Liberty. Besides being the central masterpiece of the art movement that changed the look of art forever, it represents the qualities of the French soul: joyous friendship, appreciation of beauty, verve, and the intoxication with life. It invites us to ask ourselves: How can one live a life so filled with beauty and so rich with pleasure?
Some part of me came alive in front of this painting the first time I saw it. I glimpsed more than the aesthetics of another culture—I saw a lovely, enticing range of cultural attitudes to discover. I sensed that a study of this painting would lead me to an exploration that was bound to enrich my life. The painting suggested a supplement d’âme, something more in the soul, another region ultimately more important than what can be quantified in a methodical assessment of one’s life. It was, in fact, the French art de vivre. At that moment, I felt possessed by the yearning for creative expression, just as, I was later to discover, was keenly felt by most of the figures in the painting.
What is the painting about? In part, it’s about the tantalizing riches of the senses. It invokes sensuous experiences beyond the visual: the feel of the breeze on the skin, evidenced by the fluttering scallops on the awning and the sailboats making their way upstream; the fragrance of the fruit that fills the nose; the taste of wine that enlivens the palate; the feel of one’s surroundings—one woman’s fingers in a dog’s fur, the sun on another one’s back; the sound of songs sung by boaters as they row past, and by the models to each other. They are sucking pleasure out of everything, valuing the last taste in the glass and the colors surrounding them, noticing the look in someone’s eyes and engaging in spirited exchange.
One looks at the painting and envies for an instant the characters’ capacity to fill themselves with pleasure, to grasp the fleeting present and hold it as one might hold a small bird before letting it go. The painting is imbued with this encouragement to notice delicious details in life, to value the moment, and each other. Seen in the press of high-speed living, it seduces us and urges us to stop and look and listen and taste and feel—and, ultimately, appreciate. At its best moments that’s what fine art can do if we let it work on us. It is, perhaps, what the art collector Duncan Phillips meant when he called it “one of the greatest paintings in the world,” and what his wife, Marjorie, meant in referring to it as “that fabulous, incredibly entrancing, utterly alive and beguiling Renoir masterpiece.”
Such a gift from Renoir to the ages! One must clasp hands before it in awe. My novel is my way of living in the painting, learning its lessons of the art of living, and ultimately disseminating its spirit and its sensibilities.
This painting is packed with beautiful figures interacting. Did that influence your choice of this painting as a subject?
Indeed, it did. I saw tremendous story potential in these appealing characters, flushed with pleasure and enjoying a summer day on a terrace overlooking the Seine. They teased and captivated me. However, Renoir took pains not to suggest a specific story and attested that he was only depicting a single moment in that summertime of Impressionism. That begs a novelist to create a story—and how rich it could be with all of those characters from different social classes. Renoir’s composition poses intriguing questions about the people and their relationships that I knew I must answer. For example, why is that woman in the upper right covering her ears? What is being said that she doesn’t want to hear? Or is she cupping her ears so she can hear better? Whose hand is that around her waist? Does the girl playing with the dog know that the man in the boater opposite her is admiring at her? Why do two men wear singlets and another a top hat, and what is the top-hatted man saying to his friend? And what is the big fellow thinking as he surveys the scene? Oh, so much to decide. It was exhilarating, and I found myself living that vibrant life captured in this moment.
As I researched Renoir’s life and the lives of the models, his very real friends, I saw that the issues of their lives reflected the artistic, intellectual, and social climate of the time. I could use their personal stories to expand the novel from merely a story about a man painting a picture to a multilayered narrative revealing the essence of a time period, the explosive, rapidly changing late-nineteenth century in Paris, the world capital of art and style and pleasure and, because it’s French, love.
Renoir painted fourteen different individuals. What sources did you consult in your research of the models posed in the painting? Why specifically did you give narrative voices to only seven of the models? What made you choose them over any of the others? And how did you come to speculate on their innermost thoughts and feelings?
I started with a wonderful book produced by The Phillips Collection, which owns the painting: Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” by Eliza E. Rathbone et al. It identified the models and provided some information about each of them. Then I did individual research about them in other books. For example, biographies and critical studies of Jules Laforgue indicated his proclivity toward quoting Shakespeare. I read his poetry and art criticism, as well as that of Charles Ephrussi, in his Gazette des Beaux-Arts to learn his assessment of Impressionist painters. Ellen Andrée’s performance history revealed her career as a mime to have taken a turn when she joined an avant-garde theater. I read accounts of the Folies-Bergère and applied aspects of it to her. I searched the archives of the Comédie-Française in Paris to learn what plays Jeanne Samary was rehearsing and performing at the time the painting was made, read them (they were by Molière) to learn what she might have been thinking. I discovered her contested engagement and elopement to Joseph-Paul Lagarde, and so I integrated lines from the plays into her scenes. Bits of description of Julien Tanguy, the art-supply dealer, appeared in several contemporary reports, and his portrait by Vincent van Gogh revealed his appearance.Renoir: My Father, the memoir by Renoir’s son, Jean Renoir provided recollections of his father’s attitudes, favorite sayings, and some priceless bits of humor and sarcasm. Renoir’s letters appear in several sources, and subjective accounts of his life by two of his friends—Ambroise Vollard’s Renoir: An Intimate Record and Georges Rivière’s Renoir et Ses Amis—were helpful.
Having all fourteen models function as point-of-view characters would have lengthened the novel to unmanageable proportions. I made selections on the basis of what material was available, but more importantly, what that information would allow me to contribute to a portrait of late-nineteenth-century Paris. I chose those whose lives provided heat or conflict, as well as issues that I like to explore. For example, the yearning to express and to create is demonstrated by Gustave, Jules, Ellen, and Jeanne Samary, who would not give up theater for love. Changes in marriage traditions and the roles of women could be illustrated by Jeanne’s elopement, which did, in fact, happen at this time. Bohemian life of Montmartre could best be represented by Angèle. I chose Aline, Gustave, and Paul as point-of-view characters because of their importance in Renoir’s life. Fortunately, their experiences provided material for a more complete picture of the artistic and social worlds of the time. And I chose Alphonsine because she could be most present, could provide a picture of the losses and trauma of the Franco-Prussian War, and would, I imagine, be attracted to Renoir in part, at least, because his work conveyed the river life surrounding her. The rest is imagination.
Impressionism developed in the 1870s. How did you prepare yourself to write about a different time and place?
By reading, of course. Fiction and nonfiction. My bibliography posted on my Web site indicates that my reading extended far beyond biographies of Renoir and art histories of the Impressionist period. My research included such broad topics as the history of the nineteenth century in France, French society and culture, as well as such specific topics as the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Commune; the changes in the marketing of art from the Salon to independent galleries, along with the famous art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel; the practice of the duel; dressmaking and couture of late-nineteenth-century Paris; Baron Haussmann’s sweeping changes in the look of Paris streets and squares, Montmartre, and quarters where Gustave Caillebotte, Charles Ephrussi, and Madame Charpentier lived; operas current at the time, cabarets and cabaret songs and singers, dance halls and dances, cafés; canotage, the new leisure of boating, styles of rowing craft, the specifics of river jousting, the organization of sailing regattas; transportation and currency; oil paints available at the time, art-supply dealers, color theory, Renoir’s palette and his preferred types of brushes; other painters who figure in the novel, Monet, Cézanne, Caillebotte, Degas, Bazille, Sisley; the tension among the Impressionist painters and the eventual break up of the group; publications popular at the time; the French character, gender roles, and early feminism.
I also read literature written or performed at the time: the novels of Émile Zola, the stories of Guy de Maupassant, and the poetry of Jules Laforgue, all of whom are characters in Luncheon of the Boating Party who frequented La Maison Fournaise. This gave me a sense of voice. And I searched out and listened to the music and operas and cabaret songs of the late-nineteenth century to give me a sense of the gaiety, the attitudes towards love, and the political opinions expressed in the period.
And I had the good fortune to travel to Paris twice for visual research, to walk where my characters walked and feel the rise of the land, the surrounding architecture, the river and its banks, the quality of air. I had two luncheons at La Maison Fournaise, the restaurant just west of Paris where Renoir painted Luncheon. I studied French during the three years of writing the book, so that I could read untranslated research and grasp the sound of the language and expressions. I absorbed as many Impressionist paintings as I could, in Parisian museums and in many museums in the United States, and in books, looking for clues to architecture, clothing, settings. All of this was enormously enjoyable to me, and I’ve come away understanding more of French culture.
What elements in the novel are fact and what is fiction? How do you decide when departures from fact are justified?
With all of this research, I was able to have a large degree of authenticity. The paintings, the identities of the models, the salient events of their lives, Renoir’s process of painting, the issues facing the Impressionist group, the places where scenes are set, are all factual. For the sake of the narrative, actual dates of certain events—Renoir’s meeting Aline, owning the steam-cycle, and getting his arm out of the cast—were adjusted by a few months. When the identity of a model in another painting was reported as two different women, I chose the one that would enhance my narrative. I would never deliberately change a well-known or significant fact to fit my narrative, but when a detail is of little consequence or extremely hard or even impossible to find, I took the novelist’s license to make it work for the benefit of the story. Similarly, when research does not reveal the personality and character of historic figures—Alphonsine, Angèle, Fionie, Madame Charpentier, and Baron Raoul Barbier, for example—I am free to create according to my own delight so long as what I devise is consistent with the time and place and social level of the individual.
In your opinion, what drove Renoir to paint? Were those motivations universal among his peers? Among contemporary painters?
Love, of course. He’s French, above all. And he’s a sensualist. Love for women, the river, Paris, cafés, color, the physicality of the medium, the act of working, brushstroke after brushstroke, all of these passions kept him painting, through good press and bad, through poverty and wealth, through confident times and self-doubt, through debilitating illness and pain, always yearning to learn more, express more, command more facility, to grasp the elusive play of light, the warm and convivial magic of a moment, the exquisite individuality of a woman or child or blossom, working at it with the devotion of a monk until a matter of hours before his death.
To a large extent, his contemporaries felt similar dedications, but I can’t speak for their motivations, or the motivations of contemporary painters. I don’t believe any of the painters in Renoir’s circle enjoyed the rich gooeyness of the paint more than Renoir did.
Renoir struggled to stay with the committed group of Impressionists. Why do you suppose this commitment lasted as long as it did? What was it about his friendships with Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley that was so brilliant?
A bond formed when these artists rejected together the stiff, arbitrary rules of academic painting that had no relationship to the world they saw around them in Paris and in the rural areas beyond. Together, these four left the academy to paint en plein air in the Forest of Fontainebleau. They drew strength from each other in forging new painting methods, new and revolutionary brushwork, and new subject matter depicting the present rather than the past, and in finding new painting sites. There were endless hours of discussion and argument in the cafés, especially Café Guerbois and later Café Nouvelle-Athènes, argument being part of the French artistic soul. Nevertheless, these painters had profound respect for each other, and for the work of their precursor Edouard Manet, and their contemporaries Berthe Morisot and Paul Cézanne as well. Seeing a painting by Cézanne in Père Tanguy’s art-supply shop, Renoir thinks, The man pressed on through solitude and howling criticism, finding his ecstasy in laying his individuality on canvas after canvas, and then says aloud, “With a saint’s devotion.” Such deep-seated valuing of each other’s work and struggles and bravery characterized the core group of Impressionists.
How could he break away from the solidarity that had kept them all going through the lean years? But how could he not follow his own inclinations if they led him in a different direction than theirs? Caillebotte worked with a tighter hand, and Cézanne worked more structurally than in Monet’s feathery strokes. They pursued their own way. In the end, only Monet and Morisot remained faithful to the wispy, broken stroke. In order to keep progressing, Renoir ultimately had to follow his own direction. Interestingly, though, the Impressionist stroke resurfaced from time to time all of his life.
Have you found any differences in writing about male artists versus female artists? As a woman, was it difficult to inhabit the voice of Renoir? How did you manage to do it?
I suppose it’s easier for most writers to create and vivify characters of their own gender. If Renoir wasn’t an artist, with a painter’s sensibility and sensitivity, which some think are aspects of the feminine domain, it would have been more difficult. Actually, I rather enjoyed moments when I could have him do something generally termed masculine—like kicking something out of anger, swearing, being coarse. He was no lily-white angel, you know. How did I do it? Ah, that’s the office of the imagination.
Do you think the creative processes for writers and artists are similar? How so?
Just as some painters are intuitive in their approach and others are intellectual or analytical, planning out every square inch of canvas, so are some writers intuitive, working scene by scene as though feeling their way in a cave, and others are intellectual, working from a preconceived plan or even a scene-by-scene outline. Of course, this isn’t a definitive difference. Rather, it’s a continuum, for both the painter and the writer.
What is the value of writing fiction about art? What does it allow you to address?
The value of writing about art is its effect on the imagination. Paintings allow us to inhabit another culture, place, and time period, and address the issues of those time periods that resonate with our own time.
Take the motif of a painting of figures around a dining table. What vastly different insights we get from an Italian depiction of the opulent Marriage Feast at Cana by Veronese; Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker, portraying the vacant, despairing stare of the woman; van Gogh’s humble, struggling, yet interacting peasants in The Potato Eaters; and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Each one whisks us into a very different mental and social milieu and asks of us to live these lives for a moment, thus expanding our sense of humanity.
Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it’s a small step upward in the elevation of the human race. When there is no imagination of others’ lives, there is no human connection, and therefore no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving kindness, human understanding, and peace—all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated can turn cruel, and the tragic hovers. Art—and literature—are antidotes to that.
For further exploration and discussion of Luncheon of the Boating Party, please visit the author’s Web site, www.svreeland.com, where additional discussion questions and a teachers’ guide are available.