Saturday, March 14, 2015

Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party

Living in Paris, for a culture-enthusiast, is like moving into Cinderella's Castle at Disneyland for a 10-year old girl. While researching objects belonging to Marie-Antoinette, I recall a lovely day strolling along the Quai de Nymphee, crossing over the river Seine to the Mali des Impressionistes to the terrace of the Auberge du Père at the Mainson Fournaise. Renoir's, "You won't regret the trip, I assure you. There isn't a lovelier place in all Paris surroundings," echoing in my brain. 

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. 

While I'm not the first to comment on the characters in Renoir's famous Luncheon of the Boating Party, I did take the time to research each person, trying to imagine their thoughts as well as their agendas in respect to their relationship to Renoir as well as each other. 

"I can't leave Chatou, because my painting is not yet finished. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me." 

So, just who was it Renoir invited to lunch in the affluent suburbs of western Paris? Let's take a look, shall we. 

The 'awakener of minds' behind Ellen Andrée (the actress who drinks from a glass in the center of the composition) is Charles Ephrussi, the wealthy art historian, collector, and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the world reference on art history for nearly 100 years. A member of Princess Mathilde's [inner] circle, and the man who launched the Impressionists, naturally made him an ideal person to invite to lunch with collectors and artists alike, see Auguste Marguillier, 'Charles Ephrussi', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1905, vol. II, pp. 353-60, and Philippe Kolb and Jean Adhémar, 'Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905). He is wearing the top hat in the background. While it is not shown, he is probably resting his stance with his ebony walking stick. 

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). 

Jeanne, "The image of the Parisienne" (Cezanne) wanted more than anything to be immortalized by the public. This actress, who had previously captured the attentions of Renoir, was placed, like she was at the Exhibition of 1878, very high, surrounded by other works (or in this case Renoir's flirty friends) in a small setting, where viewers were unable to see her properly. Still, despite her almost disguised presence in this setting, it is thanks to Renoir that finally received the acclaim and immortality she longed for. 

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. 

Perhaps the painting is so beloved because the persons depicted here were so beloved by the artist, some a little more so than others. Renoir's sunnily celebratory masterpiece with its blossomy colors and relaxed atmosphere is timeless as it is classic. Renoir's painting invites us into his intimate world of art collectors and artists, where this circle of friends - and lovers - radical in their views, independent in their exhibitions, captured the freshness and originality of 19th century Paris, leaving behind for us quite the impression. 

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. 

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