When Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1880–81, the 40-year-old Impressionist chose a genre subject long popular among French artists. Like others before and after him, Renoir depicted figures gathered around a table. Previously, this theme was more associated with the strictures of Salon entries than with avant-garde strategies, but even modern masters like the Realist Gustave Courbet and the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne created life-size, dour works with stolid, impassive men deep in thought in bland interiors in, respectively, After Dinner at Ornans (1849) and The Card Players (1890–92) at the Barnes Foundation.
Renoir upended those conventional approaches. He portrayed nine men and five women on a terrace overlooking a river where two appropriately dressed guests had been rowing. His scene, unlike those by his predecessors and successors, is exhilarating and festive, filled with gaiety and animation. Light permeates every aspect of the party. It strikes the variously angled faces, the creased white tablecloth on which wine bottles and glasses sparkle, shining clusters of grapes, flower brimmed hats, sun dappled trees, and the flowing river below. If you have ever wondered what makes Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party a masterpiece, not to mention a singular example of Impressionism, you just need to refer to other pictures belonging to this timeworn category.
To celebrate the museum’s crown jewel, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is presenting “Renoir and Friends: Luncheon of the Party” through January 7, 2018. It’s an unusual “In Context” show. For starters, though this is a painting on a grand scale, Renoir made no preparatory studies for it. Hence, the friends. And what friends they were. On a summer afternoon spent less than nine miles from Paris, these men and women shared a love of the arts, much more than just a sunny repast. They were actresses, art critics, another painter, and several writers, including an adventurer who wrote short stories, a theater critic for Le Chat Noir who had been the second mayor of Saigon, a government functionary, and a viscount who wrote books on Voltaire and Robespierre.
The exhibition at the Phillips features portraits by painters as revered as Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Gustave Caillebotte, as well as the more obscure Leon Bonnat and Jean Patricot, plus photographs by Nadar. Book covers, magazine articles, and sales catalogues are on view in display cases, as are three fashionable women’s bonnets and one collapsible top hat.
The stage is set in the first gallery with three scenes of the Seine at Chatou painted by Renoir. His renderings of rivers, ponds, and the ocean might be the most underappreciated works in his oeuvre. Is there a better analogue for rushing water and rolling waves than his frothy brushstrokes? Look at the nearby postcard views of Maison Fournaise and its outdoor terrace where Renoir placed his lunch crowd. The camera can’t compete with the billowing clouds and flowing water rendered by the Impressionist virtuoso. At the Phillips, you’ll relish Renoir’s smaller, more intimately scaled seascapes, empty of figures.
Having set the scene where the merrymakers gathered, Eliza E. Rathbone, the Phillips’s chief curator emerita and project director, introduces the cast of characters—the artist’s friends and colleagues—in the following display spaces. Since he didn’t make studies, the usual practice for such large canvases, Renoir needed to be familiar with the physiognomies of his revelers, and he had to be able to coax many of them to trek out to Chatou to pose for him.
Actress Ellen Andree plays an enchanting role in the Boating Party. In the middle ground, wearing a flower brimmed hat and drinking a glass of wine, she locks eyes with viewers. Andree charmed other painters, too. Modest works by Degas and Edouard Manet for which she modeled are also here, as is a photograph of her by Nadar. A few years later, in L’Absinthe (1876), Degas depicted her very differently, as a downcast souse.
Rathbone has also curated a gallery with paintings of Aline Charigot, who was only 21 when she was portrayed as a delightful rosy cheeked young woman with a little dog in the foreground of Renoir’s masterwork. Companions from the late 1870s onward, the couple waited until 1890 to marry. It is a compelling addition to recent related projects, like the splendid show of portraits of Madame Cézanne in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lehman Wing in 2015 and Mary Mathews Gedo’s 2010 book of portraits of Camille Monet. In the riveting Dance in the Country, one of three spectacular canvases with life-size revelers from 1883, which was borrowed from the Orsay and closes the exhibition, Aline Charigot already looks zaftig. Wearing lovely frocks and portrayed with pale blues and roses, Charigot’s charm, whether she’s reading an illustrated magazine or sewing or being twirled around a dance floor, is as evident to visitors to the Phillips as it was to her paramour.
A self-portrait of Renoir, then around 35 and about five years away from executing his great boating party scene, is included among the depictions of his future wife. With a high forehead, haunting eyes, a bushy moustache, and rudimentary whiskers, he doesn’t look like he’d be comfortable at a boating party. However, in the exhibition’s catalogue, we learn that, in addition to having a great sense of humor, he was “amiable, kind, generous, and unpretentious.” In Hilary Spurling’s biography of Henri Matisse, the aging Impressionist also comes across as generous with younger artists. At the end of his life—Renoir lived to be 78, dying in 1919—he befriended Matisse and inspired his younger colleague’s paintings of odalisques executed during the 1920s.
The largest gallery is devoted to Renoir’s friendships with men. Two of the most fascinating were the writer Charles Ephrussi and fellow painter Gustave Caillebotte. Wearing a top hat and standing in the background with his back to viewers in the Boating Party, Ephrussi was the only person identified by name when this picture was hung at the seventh Impressionist exhibition in 1882. An art critic for the Gazette des beaux-arts, Ephrussi wrote books on Albrecht Dürer and Paul Baudry, which are installed in vitrines along with copies of the magazine as well as two sales catalogues from 1913 related to his collections. A beloved Manet painting of a bunch of asparagus, once owned by this connoisseur is on view, too.
Also hanging nearby are Renoir’s endearing portrait of Madame Leon Fould, Ephrussi’s blue-eyed, pale skinned aunt, and a mesmerizing portrait of the blue-eyed, mustachioed composer Albert Cahen d’Anvers, whose commission Ephrussi was thought to have arranged. Both treatments enhance the artist’s reputation as a skilled portraitist.
The section devoted to Caillebotte, who lived between 1848 and 1894, expands our knowledge and appreciation of both Renoir’s life and his good friend’s. Dressed as an oarsman, which he was, in a sleeveless shirt and a straw hat, Caillebotte anchors the lower right of the Phillips’s painting. A painter as well as a discerning collector, he was the godfather of Renoir’s oldest son, Pierre, who was born in 1885, and became an actor of stage and screen. Renoir was the executor of Caillebotte’s will, which bequeathed important Impressionist works to the French state.
With ample amounts of blue and white and feathered brushstrokes that create dazzling light as well as reflections on the rippling water, four river views by Caillebotte from the 1880s and ‘90s make you want to board one of his sailboats and feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. Better known during the 20th century for his donations of works from Manet to Cézanne to museums in Paris and his sponsorship of the Impressionist exhibitions, the wealthy artist finally is getting recognition in the 21st century on the merits of his own art.
Having spent the greater part of “Renoir and Friends” with the artist’s associates, the show closes on a high note, with the Boating Party. The largest canvas on view, measuring almost four feet tall and more than six feet wide, it’s also the most radiant. If he had painted nothing else, Renoir would be heralded for this. It’s hard to fathom how something so charming could be so defiant. Despite featuring well-known, recognizable people, it was not painted as a group portrait, with the intent that individuals be identifiable. And though taking place outdoors in glorious weather, it is not a landscape epepainting. With lovingly rendered bottles, glasses, and fruit, the still life elements are probably the least noticed aspect of the picture. Renoir’s figures sit, stand, lean, and turn to their lefts and rights in captivating groupings of twos and threes. Bearded men contrast with women wearing hats. As for the garb of the celebrants, it ranges from rather informal clothes to exactingly formal dress. A busy scene filled with countless stories, it never feels frenetic.
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s filmmaker son Jean brought together another group of Parisians for a weekend at a country estate. One of the greatest movies ever made, Rules of the Game is the perfect companion piece to Luncheon of the Boating Party. Both, in their own time and own way, ask, as another French painter did, what are we and where are we going?