Last month both Smithsonian and NPR had short posts about Renoir’s Impressionist masterpiece, Luncheon of the Boating Party, each writer looking for the food amidst a celebration of post prandial camaraderie. They are right in concluding that this perfect lunch and near perfect painting is not at all about food. Smithsonian’s writer was on target regarding the setting, but his counterpart at NPR is incorrect in describing Renoir’s painting as a luncheon set in a Paris Café.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party (Le déjeuner des canotiers) 1880-81; oil on canvas 51 in x 68 in (129.9 cm x 172.7 cm).
Part of The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. since 1923
The scene is Maison Fournaise, an open-air café on the Ile de Chatou where the social classes mixed and mingled enjoying some time away from the bustle of Paris. In its heyday the Maison was a popular hangout for artists, welcoming a miscellany of customers that included businessmen, society women, actresses, writers, critics, seamstresses, and shop girls—a diversity embodying a new, modern Parisian society. Parisians went to Maison Fournaise to rent row boats, to eat a good meal, and perhaps stay the night.
Luncheon of the Boating Party shows a group of Renoir’s friends relaxing on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise along the Seine river in Chatou, France, the artist’s focus seemingly on the social aspect of the experience, a composition reflecting the changing character of French society in the late nineteenth century. Painter and art patron, Gustave Caillebotte, is seated backwards on a chair in the lower right; Renoir's future wife, Aline Charigot, is across the table playing with a small dog. On the table is fruit, wine and a scatter of half eaten grapes. A diagonal railing divides the composition, the forefront crowded with figures, the background all but empty, except for two figures: Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise and her brother, Alphonse Fournaise, Jr. The painting is alive with the play of light coming from the river and onto the balcony. Close examination reveals how the light is reflected throughout the composition. Renoir called Maison Fournaise the most beautiful spot in all the environs of Paris and his painting shows a moment of light dappled pleasure on the balcony of the café.
We see the painter’s genius in bright dabs of thick paint that shape the tableware, in contrast to the feathered brushstrokes that create a background landscape. Areas of white, such as the tablecloth and men’s singlets are mirrors of reflected color. The dog appears to be brown, but is actually a combination of violets, greens, and yellows that blend in the viewer’s eye. Flourishes of red and white spot the canvas bringing to the whole an effect of changing light.
Renoir worked on the painting over a period of months, but in spite of his drawn out pace there is a freshness of vision that surpasses the changes, the rearrangement of figures. One late addition was the striped awning at the top of the painting. Beyond his control, he was compelled to work on individual figures when his models were available. Unlike his work on other paintings, for Luncheon of the Boating Party Renoir made no preliminary sketches or drawings, and that is perhaps a reason for the months he spent bringing the work to completion.
Like others of the Impressionist school, Renoir rejected the formalism of academic painting with its careful drafting of historic scenes. Renoir wanted to capture real life, with a focus on the mundane from country roads to domestic pleasures. He sought to draw attention to ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Luncheon of the Boating Party is a combination of categories—landscape, still life, portraiture and genre painting—all in one composition.