Not only were the kids and I delighted by the menus, but the atmosphere is ripe for allowing one's feelings and mood to express themselves with a nicely prepared Citrus Marinated Salmon or goat cheese.
So, just who was it Renoir invited to lunch in the affluent suburbs of western Paris? Let's take a look, shall we.
Charles Ephrussi introduced Count Moïse de Camondo into the world of collectors and artists, but regrettably, it would appear that the Count couldn't make lunch that day as he was probably too busy celebrating the silver medal prize for 'private architecture' that his architect, Denis-Louis Destors, won him on the design of his mansion at 61 rue de Monceau. The plans of which drew an admiring crowd at the Universal Exhibition. It is quite possible that Ephrussi and the young man with which he's speaking, possibly his personal secretary, Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), were conversing over this very subject.
Jules, a part-symbolist, part-impressionist poet, was a self-taught artist who essentially tried to produce a literary equivalent of Impressionism. He was also a first-class orator, having served as a French reader, a sort of cultural counselor, for the Empress Augusta.
Ellen Andrée (1857-1925), a student of Landro who debuted at the Palais-Royal, made for delightful company at Renoir's luncheon, although I might have invited actress Réjane (Gabrielle-Charlotte Reju, 1856 - 1920) to this timeless classic.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) made an engraving/etching of Ellen Andrée in 1875, in which, I'm pleased to say; she was still wearing her hat. You can see the original print at the Library of the National Institute of Art History, collections Jacques Doucet.
Still, the Baron Raoul Barbier, in the brown bowler hat, doesn't seem to mind. A former cavalry officer and war hero, as well as former mayor of Saigon; this yachtsman, lover of race horses and women, was no doubt in good spirits that afternoon due to the ambience of this lively setting.
Alphonse Fournaise, Jr. (1823-1905) is leisurely leaning on the railing, and why not, he took over the business from his father in 1857. As a matter of fact, he had the railing, upon which he and his sister,Louis-Alphonsine Fournais , are leaning, built in 1877. It makes sense that he and his sister would want to test its durability.
In another painting by Renoir, ("Monsieur Fournaise, dit l'Homme à la pipe"; 1875; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.) Fournaise is the man with the pipe, which he might have inherited from his père, "the Admiral of Chatou".
But it was his lovely sister, Alphonsine (1846-1937) who was considered the lure of the house. Famous for her beauty, her charm and the warmth of her welcome, her presence is what turned visitors into guests. Without her genuine hospitality, the flickering light of this painting, the great pleasure and happiness that inspired even more pleasures of scholarly curiosity, might have never existed.
As we all know, lunch just wouldn't be the same without our real friends, you know the ones I'm talking about, the friends on our short-list, the ones who drop everything and come down, despite the crowd of boat enthusiasts, to help us out in a pinch - the pinch here being painting a famous portrait. So naturally, Renoir invited his close friends, Eugène Pierre Lestringèz (in a bowler hat looking at Jeanne Samary , her black-gloved hands to her ears) and Paul Lhôte (in a straw hat leaning toward Jeanne).
Lestringèz, an Official at the Ministry of the Interior, and dabbler in the occult, might have been gossiping about how "thirteen figures around a dining table makes reference to the Last Supper," it would be "impossible for a painter not to know that."
A superstitious man, who would have fretted about the omens associated with painting thirteen people in a portrait, the number dating back to ancient times. Judas would no doubt bring ill to one of the persons depicted here.
In 1887, Jules Laforgue died of tuberculosis the year after his wedding to Englishwoman, Leah Lee. It's a wonder that Paul Lhôte didn't write about it, linking it back to this portrait, but he was probably too busy trying to convince Jeanne to dance with him ("Dance at Bougival - Suzanne Valadon and Paul Lhôte -1883, Renoir, Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA). Jeanne had also previously shared Renoir's (and Puvis de Chavennes') affections. Her son, Maurice Valadon (Utrillo), who specialized in cityscapes, one of the few famous painters of Montmartre who was born there, is speculated to have been offspring from she and Renoir's liaison.
There sits Gustave Caillebotte, casually soaking in the scene in his white boater's shirt and flat-topped straw boater's hat. His lighthearted demeanor is a far cry from his more serious self-portrait in c. 1892 (Portrait de l'artiste, Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Though a member and patron of the Impressionist artists, he painted much more realistically than the others in the group. He might have portrayed the day as rainy (Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago, who in 1964 spurred American interest in the painter). Given his sizable allowance, he was probably the one to foot the bill for the luncheon.
Angèle Legault, who sold flowers in Paris' outdoor market, was a singer and another of Renoir's models. Legault seems to have momentarily lost interest in whatever Caillebotte is saying. She's tilted her head upward, captivated perchance by the highly accented witticisms of Antonio Maggiolo, the Italian journalist leaning over her.
In 1888, Legault, along side the famous tenor Victor Capoul, played the young mountain girl in Benjamin Godard's Jocelyn.
And last but not least, Aline Charigot, the seamstress, who at the time had captured Renoir's affections. Renoir later married her.
Delightfully enough, Paris has, in large part, an American to thank for funding the restoration of the Maison Fournaise in 1990. Together with the town of Chatou who voted to acquire it in 1979, as well as benefactors such as the Friends of La Maison Fournaise, have in the same Rothschildian philanthropic spirit that defined 19th century France, offered future generations an opportunity to taste a little bit of The Four Seasons of Life, where we can immerse ourselves in Renoir's painting, imagining what it might have felt like to be part of the inner circle of France's Third Republic.