Food for the Soul: The Luncheon of the Boating Party

Food for the Soul Series

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The Luncheon of the Boating Party by  Pierre-Auguste Renoir

By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout

To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes, pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.“ ~Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Summer is coming up and some of you may visit Washington, DC. If so, there is a museum to visit (once you have checked out all the Smithsonians) and one that is an absolute gem. The Phillips Collection has a beautifully curated collection of painting masterpieces and it houses one of the most famous and magnificent pictures ever done. That painting is not an accidental acquisition from some estate sale. It was purchased by Duncan Phillips himself, after he fell in love with it in 1911 and managed finally to spend a fortune buying it in 1923. The secret of getting a good deal on a painting is always the same – buy it last century… Joking aside, this is one of the most amazing pictures that you may be familiar with but have not seen in person. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Luncheon of the Boating Party (Le Déjeuner des Canotiers) painted in 1881 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Luncheon of the Boating Party

Phillips Collection is a museum created in 1921 by Duncan Phillips, a pioneering art lover who was devoted to modern American art (Rothko, Klee) and had the means, foresight and taste to collect the best examples of the French Impressionists and early 20th century art. Phillips believed in very selective collecting and a careful presentation of specific artist or an artistic idea rather than having an eclectic pile of works of art. His philosophy has been continued by subsequent directors of the museum and as a result, the Phillips Collection is a relatively small space where it is impossible to find any bad paintings. Often an art museum has acres of walls covered with good canvases mixed with very mediocre ones. Not so at Phillips where almost every exhibit is a delight and the best representation of an artist, a period or a trend. This a museum full of masterworks that can be visited in a couple of hours – an impossible feat at the Louvre or Hermitage. So … for anyone who loves visiting art museums, this is a treat. For anyone who wants to get “best of the best”- a curated collection of French and American art of 19th and 20th century- this is a destination not to miss.

The crowning jewel of the Impressionist collection there is one of the most admired Renoir paintings. A Renoir is always easy to spot – pretty women in white blouses and flowery hats, bouquets of flowers, warm colors, flowing strokes of blue and copper paint. Most of them lovely but some of them have the feel of a commissioned portrait done hastily to pay the bills. This painting is a work of love and a Renoir at his pinnacle.

This one has all these unmistakable features –rosebud lips and russet hair of sweet young ladies, graceful tilts of the heads and soulful gazes but it is foremost an incredible feat of composition. Ostensibly it is a “life-scene” portraying a casual group of weekenders lounging after a nice meal on a terrace of a river restaurant. However, if you take a closer look, you realize that nothing in this painting is casual. There are fourteen people and a dog crammed around one small table and a sliver of railing, with the boats on a river as a background. Fourteen…because it is said that Renoir added one person to the composition to avoid the 13-people grouping of the Last Supper and perhaps an unlucky number.

How many paintings can group so many figures in one not so huge rectangle and still show a complex interaction of in a busy and precisely composed scene? There is a perfect perspective, a beautiful color plan, a variety of poses, expressions and looks and a meticulous structure (check out the orange striped canopy that perfectly completes an upper corner and adds a warm glow of light). Renoir wanted to paint a “scene of modern-life” and a proof of his ability to create a major composition worthy of his contemporary rivals who exhibited at the Salon (Puvis de Chavannes, Manet etc.). The painting was a challenge and a proof of his mastery. Each of the models was in fact a friend of Renoir. They posed for the painting over many weeks – his fiancée (Aline Charigot), his friend, fellow painter and a patron (Gustave Caillebotte), his restaurateur (Alphonse Fournaise). You feel like you are part of this casual lunch party, so vivid and charming, an outing of newly-minted middle-class Parisians. The painting feels so fresh and contemporary even though it is now almost 140 old. This is perfect example of what a painting should be and so often isn’t- smart, beautiful, evocative, interesting, memorable, with an interesting backstory and done with a killer composition skill.

The Phillips Collection exhibits one wonderful painting after another: John Sloan, Mark Rothko, great Picassos, Georgia O’Keeffe, Matisse, Kandinsky, Hopper, an incredible Bacon. A great feature of this collection is that whatever painter they acquired – it is one of the best paintings of that artist. For the sake of brevity, I’m simplifying here both Phillips’s lifework and Renoir’s oeuvre but visiting the museum and this incredible painting may inspire you to explore further.

Even if the Phillips Collection would just have the Luncheon of the Boating Party and nothing else on the walls, it would still be worth a visit- just for this one wonderful painting. Once you have seen it, you will know enough about Impressionism to appreciate all the future ones at museums of the world. And never mind what the connoisseurs of art say about Renoir having painted other better pictures or how modern art is so much more complex and important.

Here is what Renoir had to say about that: “There’s nothing more absurd than a “connoisseur.” I think he meant that there is no such thing as good art or bad art. Art is anything that makes you feel something with passion. The Luncheon painting certainly does.
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