Last Monday I had posted the paintings chosen by my mini-term students and the haiku that they wrote inspired by those paintings. I also set out my plan for the continuation of this blog, as follows:

  1. Mondays – paintings or photography
  2. Tuesdays – sculpture or architecture
  3. Wednesdays – music
  4. Thursdays – theater or cinema
  5. Fridays – TV
  6. Saturdays – books

The first week went well, and I’ve been thinking all week about what will come next. I wanted to start the paintings section with one of my favorite paintings by one of the great Impressionist painters:

The Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881


There is so much to love about this painting. For one thing, it makes me wish to be there among the friends who have finished their dinner and are now enjoying conversation. The faces are so complete, with individual expressions and personalities. And beyond the awning, the river flows serenely past, surrounded by greenery and dotted with sailboats. I’m also charmed by the variations in clothing; some of the people seem to be quite formally dressed, while others are very casual. You can almost hear the chattering voices and the soft breezes blowing.

A few years ago I read a very interesting book on this subject, by Susan Vreeland, an author who has made a name for herself by writing novels based on paintings and painters. Her work is richly researched, to the point where it might almost be considered a partial biography. But she takes liberties by imagining the thoughts and words of the people involved, so the book becomes fictionalized. I enjoyed the story, but I also enjoyed learning about this painting and the history behind it.

The identities of the people in the painting have been well documented. The young woman with the little dog is Aline Charigot, who eventually became Renoir’s wife. She was a seamstress and an aspiring model, and her innocent beauty inspired some of Renoir’s best paintings. Straddling the chair opposite her is Gustave Caillebotte, another Impressionist painter and a friend and supporter of Renoir’s work. Caillebotte had inherited money and often bought Renoir’s paintings as a way of helping him pay the bills. (I will soon feature my favorite Caillebotte painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day).

The Impressionist style had man detractors at first, and Renoir wanted to prove that a great painting of large scale and complexity could be accomplished in that style. His friends agreed with him, and volunteered their time to sit for his great masterpiece. The models sat on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise restaurant. Each Sunday for several weeks (six or seven) this group of friends would indeed go boating on the Seine early in the day while the weather was still cool. Upon disembarking, they would meet for lunch. Mssr. Fournaise donated much of the food and drink for the models, because he, too, believed in Renoir’s project. Alphonse Fournaise, Jr., can be seen leaning against the railing of the balcony, wearing an undershirt (he sailed one of the boats), and his sister Alphonsine can be seen leaning on her elbows farther back on the railing. After the time on the river and the sumptuous lunch, the models took their positions and held still, sometimes for four hours or more. It is said that Caillebotte suffered permanent back pain as a result of his pose, leaning back without support while sitting backwards on that chair.

The story is terrific, but there’s also just so much to SEE. I love the way Renoir captured the light reflected in the wine bottles and glasses; the fluffy hair of the puppy; the balance between dark and light colors; the glimpses of the boats on the river; the fluttering of the awning; the overall compositional unity. It’s one of those paintings that I can’t imagine ever getting tired of.

If you’re interested in learning more, I can recommend Wikipedia’s page about this painting. It features close-ups of the faces in the painting and a couple of photographs of Maison Fournaise in its current state. You might also enjoy reading this Mental Floss article about the painting. As usual, Mental Floss has dug up some interesting trivia.

I hope you enjoyed viewing and reading about The Luncheon of the Boating Party. I know I enjoyed revisiting it.

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