My editor gave me this book—named after the painting of the same name by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Le déjeuner des canotiers)—because it was “too arty and too French” for her literary taste. Happily for me, an ardent Francophile and slow-gazer of paintings, it is both of those things, in abundance.
Luncheon of the Boating Party is the first of Vreeland’s I’ve read, and it fits nicely with my current collection of novels that divulge/create the stories behind an artist, their muse, and the resulting piece of art. With these kind of books, it doesn’t matter how much of the tale is truth or legend or pure fancy wrought from a modern mind, centuries after the event… it’s actually best when you can’t tell.
Aside from the potential liberties taken with the characters themselves, the research into the era—the architecture and innovations, political and religious climate, fashion and arts, influential personages and the general esprit du temps—is usually quite thorough and accurate. The best of these books often send me into a 2-week bender to research medieval Spain, royal families, artisan craftsmen, famines and wars, and all the other things I missed by not taking a world history class, ever.
One of my favorite authors of this genre, Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Virgin Blue, The Lady and The Unicorn), has a particular way of convincing you that you really can see the story in the strokes and the stitching. In Luncheon…, Vreeland does the same; it’s nostalgic and urgent all at once, the way she calls you again and again to scrutinize at the painting on the cover and in the full-cover inset as the story unfolds. My copy now has a definite crease to the spine where I continually flipped back to the inset, inspecting each daub, each set of the chin. “Ah! That’s what that glance means!” I thought. “Yes, I see how those highlights needed to be placed.”
Luncheon of the Boating Party takes place in the summer of 1880, a pivotal moment in the formation of the Impressionist movement, when the founders (Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Sisley, to name a few) find themselves at splintered edges of an ever-widening chasm, both personally and artistically. Is the idea of Impressionism made less meaningful and true when its creators must make allowances for popular (and academic) values? Luncheon… seems to be a story of searching for an answer, a definition. The characters and the author work fervently together, identifying and declaring the Impressionist painting technique; they seek to characterize la vie moderne, and categorize exactly what a person is… or might be.
The famous painting that inspires this story is under constant analysis, from the painter, his models, the expectant dealers, and the all-powerful critics, whose Sunday reviews could ruin an entire movement. Before Renoir lays the first strokes, he struggles mightily with whether he can even follow his own definitions for Impressionism, or for beauty or love.
Even if it wasn’t a well-crafted story with a continuing supply of surprisingly detailed sub-characters—which it is—and even if it does have the slight flaw of spending a bit too much time with a blow-by-blow account of at least three boat races (these action-packed and sailing jargon-laden passages seem too immaterial to the story for so many pages, and are at odds with the steady rhythm that moves the rest of the plot-points along), Luncheon… earns it’s keep on your shelf with particular instances of what it is.
Luncheon of the Boating Party is an imagined love letter from the painter to his creation. Surprisingly, some of the most gripping passages are descriptions of painting technique and Renoir’s thought process as he applies that technique to his canvas. Vreeland makes the process an adventure and a mystery: Can the painter make his painting acceptable to the academy? How can he possibly reconcile Impressionistic attention to color and light with the classical dependencies on line, contrast, and an anchored composition? This dark focus in the foreground: what will the critics say? Over and over again, the reader is a voyeur as Renoir’s internal monologue sings in lusty appreciation for the women he paints. I gasped out loud when he savagely scraped a recalcitrant model out of the cheery tableau. I was later consoled and considerably cheered by a new model. I reveled with Renoir in his sense of wild freedom to paint impressionist flowers next to a classically rendered face, and in his insistent, sensual joy of just the right Prussian blue.
Perhaps even more intriguing, Luncheon of the Boating Party is a series of snapshots that capture a changing Paris in the late 1800’s. There’s an important theme of nous, “us,” the emerging class “that makes the bourgeoisie nervous,” as one character laughs. In a clever device, the characters (the models for the painting, mostly) play a show-and-tell game while posing, each tasked to report an observation of la vie moderne. Some are heart-breaking little observations, others witty, ironic, or full of love, stories of a city that is feeling it’s way into a new identity after years of war and unsure reconstruction.
In my favorite sub-plot (there are several), we follow one character, the actress Ellen Andrée, through the end of her career as a mime at the Folies Bergère. She despairs that the audience is not there to “witness human emotion,” but rather for their increasingly indiscreet rendezvous in the very aisles. She dreams of life in the revolutionary Théatre des Arts, where the audience will “sit still and listen” to the thousands of beautiful words she plans to speak out loud, some day, some day. Funnily enough, she is the one figure in the painting rendered incapable of speech at that precise moment: a wine glass is raised to her lips, subtly darkening her complexion beneath, in what was to become the most famous detail of the finished painting.
And because this is that type of book, I don’t know yet how much of it —any of it, really—is true. But Vreeland lets me feel like I get the joke.