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Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party dazzles as the work of both an artist and an artistic movement at its peak. In the painting, we see Renoir's friends—artists, actors, diplomats, and merchants--together in a new less stratified way that defines the new “bourgeoisie.” Tout de Paris shares fruit and nuts, champagne, red and white wine on a water-view balcony at the restaurant Maison Fournaise. Renoir moves from city scenes like Le Pont Neuf Paris and portraits like Jeanne Samury to the Paris suburb of Chatou, a thirty-minute train ride out of the city. Renoir was a regular at the guest house, boat rental and restaurant that overlooks the Seine. He depicted scenes taking place at Maison Fournaise in at least thirty different works, including Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise and Alphonsine Fournaise on the Isle of Chatou.
Some art historians believe that Renoir created the painting in response to writer and critic Emile Zola's challenge that the Impressionists didn't paint works that were complete, detailed and contained the logic of classical painting. Also, Edgar Degas had started bringing new, younger artists into the Impressionist group; Renoir may have intentionally created a stunning showstopper to prove himself as one of the masters of the movement.
The painting, which Renoir called Le dejeuner des canotiers was painted over a period of six months in 1881 and is a large-scale work: 130 centimeters by 175 centimeters—over four feet by almost six feet. Renoir brought each person to the site to do individual portraits to capture the light and facial details as only he knew how.
Looking at the composition overall, Renoir clearly divides the piece into quarters vertically. The awning support rail divides the painting in half vertically, another awning support rail divides the left side of the painting vertically again, and finally, the green of the hedge divides the right side. A strong diagonal is created across the canvas, most clearly delineated by the balustrade the hatted man and woman lean against. This positive upward angle takes the eye from the lower left corner all the way to the upper right. This use of angles brings a classical stability to the composition—this is what Emil Zola was talking about. Not every painter of the day could combine this classical use of space with the loose brushwork Renoir brings to the canvas. Restorers tell us that one of the last elements added into the composition, which Renoir painted without preliminary sketches, is the striped awning. The awning is crucial to the piece, tying the arrangement together and giving the setting a cozy intimacy in which the viewer is made to feel a part.
The cast of characters who appear in Luncheon of the Boating Party includes Renoir's future wife, mother of his three sons and frequent painters' model, Aline Charigot. Fourteen figures animate the canvas, Aline and her puppy preside over the entire lower left corner, her dark dress and bright colors stabilize the composition. The only other two people on the entire right side of the canvas are Alphonse and Alphonsine, both named after their father, the owner of the Maison Fournaise.
Three celebrities make appearances, including actress Ellen Andrée who sits at the very center of the painting. “She is in the painting, yet outside,” says the painter character who copies Luncheon of the Boating Party for more than twenty years in the movie Amélie. More than one hundred years later, the woman in the painting will inspire the character of Amélie; her look, the short bangs and pouty mouth.
In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir masterfully combines his love of figures, portraits and bright colors with that constant Impressionist sources of inspiration: light and the fleeting moments of modern life. The edges of the bottles gleam, skin glows, and the viewer can almost take part in the conversations. Renoir moves away from the super soft brushstrokes of his other large-scale work Dance at the Le Moulin de la Galette. Here he combines his abilities as both an Impressionist and a classical painter by using loose brushwork in some areas, and in other areas defining edges, creating contours and overlapping the figures to give the painting depth and a classically beautiful sense of dimensionality.
Pierre Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges, France in 1841. Looking to improve their financial situation his family moved to Paris to an apartment near the Louvre. As a boy, he attended a local Catholic school and took free drawing classes at a city-sponsored art school. Although he was a good student, Renoir left school at the age of thirteen. Knowing he was good at drawing and painting, he helped his family by apprenticing at a porcelain factory, then later painting decorative hangings and decorative fans.
In 1892 he began studying at Charles Gleyre’s art studio where the only fees were the cost of the materials and payment of the models. Even these small requests for contributions were more than Renoir had, and he often depended on other students to help him out. Other students of Gleyre included Jean-Leon Gerome, James Whistler and several of Renoir’s soon-to-be cohort in Impressionism: Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille, and Claude Monet. Gleyre once said to the young Renoir, “Are you painting just to amuse yourself?” and Renoir is reported to have said, “Why else would I paint?” He did not love the studio, but it was the only one he could remotely afford. He visited the Louvre frequently studying and making copies of the great paintings, becoming familiar with many of the artists and paintings in the collection.
At the Louvre, Renoir probably spent time in front of The Marriage Feast at Cana, Paolo Veronese's grand banquet scene, painted in 1652. Both Veronese's scene and Luncheon are alive with characters Both paintings depict a table surrounded by guests in which the table almost reaches out to the viewer. Like most everyone else during his time, Renoir was a fan of Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera, painted in 1717. The painting's Rococo mood was very popular at the time, and Watteau's fetes gallants—celebrations, picnics, and boating parties--can be seen as part of Renoir's artistic lineage.
Monet, Bazille, Sisley, and Renoir frequently painted together, venturing out to the forest of Fontainbleu for sessions en plein air. Monet and Renoir painted side by side for two months in 1869 at La Grenouillere. There they used large, loose brushwork to capture the light on the water, the bobbing boats, and the movement of the people on the docks. Thick impasto and vivid colors, hallmarks of the Impressionism style, display the innovative experiments these artists explored at that particular place and time.
Renoir had his first painting accepted by the Paris Salon in 1864, La Esmeralda, inspired by Victor Hugo’s story Notre Dame de Paris. He then suffered rejection after rejection from the Salon for at least six years. He sought out commissions and depended on friends to survive. In his early years, he seemed to have no permanent home or studio address. Aware of the strict requirements of the Salon, he painted portraits with invisible brushwork and realistic coloring, using Gustave Courbet as inspiration. With Portrait of Lise with a Parasol, exhibited in 1867, he finally had his first real success.
In 1870 he was drafted into the army and assigned to the cavalry unit. He became ill and was exempted from the action, unlike his painter-friend and cohort from Gleyre’s studio, Bazille, who was killed. After the war, he made his way back to Paris and started the work of restarting his painting career.
Unhappy with his slow road to a successful life as a painter using the traditional route of the Salon, Renoir joined forces with Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Mary Cassatt to exhibit through a private gallery. In 1874 he exhibited six paintings in the first Independent Gallery—a radical idea at the time when only dead artists were exhibited outside the Salon. The only cost of exhibiting in these early independent shows was contributing towards renting the gallery space. The first show was a mixed success. Panned by the critics who didn’t know what to think of these “Impressions” of paintings, the independent shows achieved something more important than critical success: notoriety. At the same time as the first independent show, two of Renoir’s works were represented by the well-known art dealer Durand-Ruel. Renoir simultaneously followed two avenues to success: the traditional and the unconventional, hoping if the independent gallery shows didn’t work out, finding clients via the Salon and traditional art representatives would.
To make money, Renoir took on portrait commissions, and his modern style attracted the attention and patronage of clients with modern sensibilities. In the Independent Gallery show in 1876, he exhibited only his portraits. By the next year, his subject matter had become more diverse and was placed exactly in the world of the Impressionists: Dance at Moulin de la Galette and The Swing. Although one of the founding members of the Impressionist movement, after this 1877 show, he no longer exhibited with the group. With the success of Madame Charpentier and her Children shown in the Salon of 1879—fifteen years after his first painting had been accepted—he had finally become a sought-after Salon-approved painter. Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted two years later.
With success came financial freedom; he now had the means to travel. He painted as he went, working in Venice, Naples, and Sorrento, recording his views of the areas with the distinctive parallel brushstrokes he favored at the time. On the trip, he visited Algeria, Madrid (to see Velazquez’s works), Florence, Rome, Palermo, and finally a summer in Guernsey, where he painted fifteen landscapes, including Hills around the Bay of Moulin Huet, Guernsey. Back in Paris he lived and worked in Montmartre, where he married long-time girlfriend Aline Charigot, who we see in the lower left of Luncheon of the Boating Party.
His trip to Italy, where he saw the works of Raphael, and other Renaissance masters had convinced him that he should return to classic, academic techniques and the “grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters.” Paintings made after this trip like Reclining Nude show a return to a more academic style and the influence of the great masters. The series of large sculpture-like nudes in undefined landscapes culminates in Large Bathers. Then after 1890, he changed direction again.
In 1886, the French government invited him to create a painting for the Musée du Luxembourg, where the first national exhibition of Impressionists works took place. Pissarro, Manet, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir all contributed works. Renoir painted five versions of Girls at the Piano and asked the Minister of Fine Arts to choose one for the exhibition. From this period on, he embraced a looser more Impressionistic style once again: outlines dissolve into the setting, the brushwork is visible and the colors vivid. However, he uses the classical modeling of the figures, giving them dimension in the Impressionistic setting and background.
As was noted in the exhibition catalog at the time of the 1988 exhibition, Renoir Retrospective, "Flowers frequently appear in his paintings as hat decorations or as part of the landscape behind figures even when they are not the main motif. Renoir himself said that when painting flowers, he was able to paint more freely and boldly." The flowers on Aline's hat in Luncheon of the Boating Party add a touch of vermillion giving the painting a focus and a departure point.
By being part of the traditional Salon and the group of Impressionists, Renoir took two paths to success. He also took two paths in his artwork, innovative light-capturing Impressionism, and traditional, classical painting. With Luncheon of the Boating Party Renoir combines both his talents and fuses the styles, exploring and embracing the challenges of painting during an artistic revolution.
As a crossover artist who exhibited paintings in both the Salon des Arts and the Impressionist exhibitions, Renoir had intended Luncheon of the Boating Party as a submission for the official Salon. However his biggest supporter and patron, collector Paul Durand-Ruel bought the painting and displayed it at the 7th Impressionist Exhibition, against the artist's wishes. Three critics who reviewed the show considered Luncheon of the Boating Party to be the best painting of the 1882 exhibition.
Having become world famous, Renoir continued to paint until his last days, suffering from arthritis in his hands so badly he sometimes needed help adjusting the position of the paintbrush he was holding. Towards the end of his life, he visited the Louvre, where as a boy he had made copies of the masters, to see his paintings hanging among the other great works.
The setting of Luncheon of the Boating Party, Maison Fournaise, opened in 1860 and closed in 1906. In the 1990s the townspeople of Chatou received support for a restoration project, and guests can once again relax on the balcony and enjoy a glass of champagne, visit an exhibit that explores Renoir and other artists' work inspired by the location, and admire the light that Renoir lovingly recreated.
When Renoir's devoted patron Paul Durand-Ruel died in 1922, his sons sold off some of his immense collection. American art collector Duncan Phillips spent his entire art-buying budget for the year on Luncheon of the Boating Party, paying $125,000. He considered the work not only the best painting in his esteemed collection of modern art but one of the most famous paintings in the world. Luncheon of the Boating Party is now part of the collection at The Phillip's Collection in Washington, D.C., where it is the modern art museum's most famous and popular work.
Fellow art collector Albert Barnes was once to have said to Phillips, "That's the only Renoir you have, isn't it?" To which Phillips replied, "It's the only one I need.”
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