The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland is a wonderful historical fiction book that captures 1880s Paris as artist Pierre Auguste Renoir struggles with his artistic identity. Renoir is committed to the Impressionists, but is also struggling financially and plans to do a painting to hang in the annual Salon. This break with the Impressionist exhibit might unhinge the group, and he grapples with his love of painting en plein air, and his need to make a living. He wonders if, for him, impressionism has run its course. He doesn't want to be a completely traditional painter, and as a new movement of painting the miserable side of la vie moderne begins to swell, Renoir clings to his vision of painting la vie en rose. Life has enough misery, he maintains. He wishes to paint things that are beautiful.
Vreeland ably writes the character of Renoir, giving him personality and character traits that make him come alive on the pages of her novel. She captures the sights, sounds, and food of 1880 Paris, and her writing flows. In the novel, she follows Renoir in the months he takes to plan and paint the famed "Luncheon of the Boating Party." It is a critical painting in his career, and although you know the painting will get completed, Vreeland manages to build tension in the story as Renoir scrambles to get it done. His desire to complete it completely outdoors on a series of Sundays using live models makes the task seemingly impossible as the cast of characters alters. Will he ever get all the models together consistently? Will he make his deadline? Will this be his piece de resistance, or his greatest failure?
La Grenouilliere - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The novel includes images of several Renoir paintings. Vreeland weaves these paintings into the narrative as well. Renoir used many friends as models for this painting. It is the first time Aline Charigot models for him, but not the last, and eventually, she becomes his wife.
Vreeland does not shy away from the fact that many artists carried on affairs with their models. She also acknowledges the seedier reputation of the girls who frequented the dance halls of Montmartre and often became models. However, she does not stoop to graphic, gritty accounts, and keeps her prose as colorful and sparkling as a Renoir painting. This is a very enjoyable read, and very quickly and painlessly teaches the reader about the main players in the Impressionist movement in Paris.
For more information about Renoir's painting, click here.
Read my other blog post about Renoir.