Susan Vreeland paints a tale that revolves around the Renoir masterpiece, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” After all the heavy lit I’ve been reading lately this was a welcome confection.
Along the way I learned some interesting background about Impressionism, Paris in 1880, and sailing on The Seine.
If the author's interpretation is to be believed, it was criticism from Zola that drove Renoir to attempt this ambitious portrait of fourteen:
"If one is too easily contented, if one sells sketches that are hardly dry, one loses the taste for works based on long and thoughtful preparation. The real misfortune is that no artist among the Impressionists has achieved powerfully and definitely the new formula which, scattered through their works, they all offer in glimpses... The man of genius has not yet arisen. We seek in vain the masterpiece that is to lay down the formula... they remain inferior to what they undertake; they stammer without being able to find the words."Ouch! And this about Renior, Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Degas, Cezanne, Caillebotte, Morisot.
The story takes place over the two month period it took to create the masterpiece, with background stories of the characters that sit as models. The amazing luncheons they enjoy over 8 weeks of Sundays are described in mouth-watering detail: salmon with mushrooms and dill baked in brioche bread; rabbit stew; crepes. After the light loses its magic, there is usually sailing or rowing to be done.
The cover of the book is the painting itself, and I found myself constantly flipping back and forth to study the characters and brushstrokes as I read about them in the text.
As the painting takes shape and colour, each detail is brought to life: how the red poppies came to be on the brim of one hat; the awning waving in the breeze, the sailboats in the background.
“The sly, soft eyes of this one tipping her head coquettishly, the archness of her smile. And the pert little nose of that one, her petulance, absorbed in her dog but knowing that Gustave is adoring her. The feline charm of this one looking through the glass. And the black gloves to this one’s ears, forcing us to speculate what she doesn’t want to hear.” ...and Gustave’s hand lines up with Angele’s, the woman looking at him... and the two hands on the chair of the right, the titillation of that.”...Consider all the academic prose and art criticism the painting has inspired. Indeed, “a picture is worth a thousand words”..... or more....
“the luscious still life. The face in the glass is far lovelier than Vermeer’s attempt. The young woman loving her little dog - you’re quoting Fragonard there. And the langor of the one leaning on the railing is pure Ingres. You’ve given the masters a rebirth in Impressionist style and subject.” (p 419-420)