I have been on a vacation of sorts for the past few days, even though I haven't set foot outside of Bismarck. I've been devouring Susan Vreeland's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" after Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting of the same name. I have been walking the streets of Monmartre or dining on exquisite dishes on the upper terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Seine near Paris.
Of course, I have seen this painting before, but I will never look at it the same way again. Vreeland's book tells how Renoir came to gather these 14 people together for a series of eight sittings en plein air at La Maison Fournaise on the Isle de Chatou near Paris.
Renoir brings these wonderful people and their setting to vibrant life. In the front with her little dog is Alene, the seamstress from the country who falls in love with Renoir. Also in love with Auguste, as they call him, is Alphonsine Fournaise, the restaurant owners' daughter, leaning on the railing. In the rear, holding her hands to her ears, is Jeanne, whom Renoir is in love with. All are based on real people, Vreeland's notes tell us.
The only mystery figure is the man watching the woman drink wine. Is he Renoir, or is he the famous writer Guy de Maupassant? Renoir frantically searched to find a 14th person to pose. Thirteen would have been very bad juju, and would have insulted the Catholic hierarchy of France, with its reference to "The Last Supper."
You have two men in their singlets and boaters, obviously just finished rowing. But who is the dapper man in the top hat, looking so out of place? Vreeland has rounded out their personalities so well. There is Helen, the actress at the Folies Bergere, who hopes some day to be more than just a mime. We have Auguste's very good friend, Gustave, himself an artist who is trying desperately to hold the French Impressionist movement together. Meanwhile, Auguste is trying desperately to hold his group together and finish the enormous canvas before he loses the light of summer.
I nearly salivated on my book as I read about the fabulous meals they ate and the wines they drank before they got down to posing each Sunday afternoon. (Boeuf Richileau in Madeira sauce, anyone?) Even the Seine, so pastoral in its rural incarnation, is a living, breathing character. Just the description of someone peeling a peach made me want to throw down the book and run to buy one.
Back in the city, Monmartre is cheerful and gay, with its dance halls, restaurants, musicians and pleasure gardens. But there is a hidden dark side as well. There are the demimondaines and their lovers; the pickpockets and thugs who beat up Renoir.
He has many struggles to face before he can complete the painting: He's always scrambling to beg or borrow money to buy paint and canvas and pay models. Somewhat hapless, he has one arm in a cast and then falls off his steam-powered bicycle and scrapes up his face. He has to fire one model and others don't show up. He is rejected by Jeanne and can't make up his mind between Aline and Alphonsine. He has to decide whether to stay with the Impressionists or break away from his dear friends. He rearranges poses, scrapes faces off the canvas, is despondent and hopeless, then finds solutions and is rejuvenated and indeed falls in love with painting again.
It all culminates gloriously in one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. Vreeland describes how Renoir daubs peach on a face here, highlights a white ruffle there, brings in shades of lavender on a white tablecloth to create his masterpiece. But she herself painted a glorious portrait of the bohemian life of Paris in 1881 as she layered on detail after detail. I have read other books by Vreeland in which she imagines the lives of other famous painters. I would say this is HER masterpiece.