Friday, April 16

Luncheon morsels and 'a little plan'

One of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's most beloved works is the charming moment captured in Luncheon of the Boating Party, which many of you may have had occasion to enjoy at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. He managed to meld landscape, still life, portraiture and genre painting into an intimate unified composition, while somehow gracefully balancing two figures on the left with a dozen on the right. Despite the crowded table, there is still a welcoming spot waiting for us at the forefront.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
The scene depicts one of the many boating and lunch outings celebrated by Renoir and the group of friends and acquaintances pictured here at the Maison Fournaise restaurant on the Seine river in Chatou, a 20 minute train ride west of Paris. The painting, according to the artist's son Jean in his book Renoir, My Father (see earlier post on the filmmaker and playwright's recollection of his painter father), "was the crowning achievement of a long series of pictures, studies and sketches" done at the restaurant during the 1870s.
Here is an actual postcard from that time showing what the restaurant and surrounding area looked like when it was frequented by Renoir and friends just a few years before he painted the famed luncheon group. I have clipped it from an excellent artistic and historical analysis of the painting that you can find here at the Phillips Collection website.

Postcard of the Maison Fournaise and Seine river, 1870s. © Musée Fournaise, Chatou-France
At the time, the restaurant was popularly known as the "Grenouillére", literally, the "frog pond". And this was "not from the numerous batrachians which swarmed in the surrounding fields". The term grenouilles, frogs, was used to describe

... a class of unattached young women, characteristic of the scene before and after the Empire, changing lovers easily, satisfying any whim, going nonchalantly from a mansion in the Champs Elysées to a garret in the Batignolles. To them we owe the memory of a Paris which was brilliant, witty and amusing.
Among that group, moreover, Renoir got a great many of his volunteer models... Because French people love a medley of classes, actresses, society women and respectable middle-class people also patronized the Fournaise restaurant. The tone of it was set by young sportsmen in striped jerseys, who vied with one another to become accomplished boatmen.
Much has been written on the mix of boatmen, artists, patrons, actresses, restaurant owner and others who are gathered around this table. For more information on this festive cast of characters, you can do no better than to visit the informative and enjoyable website devoted to Susan Vreeland's novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.

I will only pick at some choice morsels from this luscious meal. Here, apart from briefly mentioning that the young woman happily playing with the dog is Renoir's beloved Aline Charigot, later to become his wife, I wanted to discuss one of the guests, the gentleman in the yellow straw hat and sleeveless maillot at the bottom right, the engineer, heir to a bank fortune, painter, art patron, yachtsman and close friend of Renoir's: Gustave Caillebotte.

Gustave Caillebotte is a somewhat unsung hero of the Impressionist movement. Born into a family of bankers, he resisted the pressure to follow his father's profession and instead threw himself into what he most loved: painting. According to Jean Renoir, Caillebotte "painted with as much passion as any member of the Impressionist group". Although not always considered an Impressionist painter, in part due to the realism of his paintings, he did exhibit with them. And he became a great friend, patron and financial and moral backer and determined advocate for that group of struggling young "intransigents", as they called themselves.

Below is The Floor Scrapers, one of his paintings. He displayed it at the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876, for which he received, again according to Jean Renoir, "his share of criticism and insults". One of the objections that barred the doors of the official Salon to him in this work was his choice of subject. The urban proletariat were just not considered the proper object of a "serious" artist's attention. While the idealized depictions of peasants and farmers by Millet and others had begun to find favor with the Academy's arbiters of high art, the same did not go for people who toiled in cities.

Gustave Caillebotte, 1875. Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor Scrapers). Musee d'Orsay, Paris
In Jean Renoir's account of his father's reaction to the painting
Renoir praised it, and Caillebotte, being an exceedingly modest man, had blushed. He was only too well aware of his limitations. "I try to paint honestly, hoping that some day my work will be good enough to hang in the antechamber of the living-room where the Renoirs and Cézannes are hung".
At the recent Impressionist exhibition in Madrid (see earlier post on the Impressionist show at Fundación Mapfre), I was able to see this painting and found it quite striking. I even found myself looking at the floor below the painting to see if I could spot any wood shavings that may have wafted down. In recent years, Caillebotte's works have been drawing renewed attention from art historians and receiving greater due (see the highly interesting essay, "Odd Man In: A Brief Historiography of Caillebotte's Changing Roles in The History of Art" by Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC).

What is beyond all dispute is the valuable contribution he made to the early Impressionists as they struggled to eke out an existence. His financial support, especially for Monet, was crucial. Caillebotte funded exhibitions, paid studio rents, bought several dozen of their paintings and helped keep them together when disputes arose and threatened to irreparably disrupt the movement.

And in 1876, when he wrote his will, he came up with a "little plan" to definitively elevate the Impressionist upstarts to what he felt was their rightful place in the art world, a plan that would not be activated until his death in 1894 at the age of 45. Again, Jean Renoir recalls what his father told him of this generous friend and patron:
 Caillebotte had gathered the most important collection of his friends' works. His enthusiastic purchases were often made just in the nick of time for those who benefited by them. How many artists in financial straits at the end of the month were saved by his generosity and farsightedness. "He had his own little plan ... He was a sort of Joan of Arc of painting".

Gustave Caillebotte — Paris Street- Rainy Weather 1877. Art Institute of Chicago.

Caillebotte willed his collection of nearly 70 paintings (almost all by Impressionists) to the French government, on the condition that they be shown at the Luxembourg Palace (where living artists were exhibited) and then at the Louvre. He hoped the French government would not dare to refuse it. The ostracism still faced by the Impressionists would thus be vanquished and they would finally have their place of honor in the great museum of French and world art. That was Caillebotte's "little plan".

Sadly, the government did not accept the terms. Renoir, as executor of Caillebotte's will, had to carry on the very complicated and unpleasant negotiations. His son Jean describes the outcome:
Everyone knows the sequel. At least two thirds of this unique collection, one of the greatest in the world, was turned down. The remaining third did not get past the doors of the Louvre, but was stored away in the Luxembourg Museum. On the death of Charlotte Caillebotte, those works which had been rejected went to various heirs, who got rid of them as quickly as possible. Scorned by France, they were well received in foreign countries. A good many were bought in the United States. I tell this story to any French friend who accuses Americans of having emptied France of its masterpieces by means of the almighty dollar.
The exact number of paintings almost reluctantly accepted by the French government and stored at the Luxembourg museum was 38. They eventually went on to form the core of the Musée d'Orsay's Impressionist collection. The French government did finally change its mind in 1928 and tried to claim the inheritance of the rest of the paintings from Caillebotte's marvelous collection, but the bequest was repudiated by the heirs (Caillebotte's widowed daughter-in-law), and most of those paintings were purchased by Albert C. Barnes and are now held by the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia. For more on Caillebotte and a slideshow of some of his major works, see the website Gustave Caillebotte — The Complete Works.

One more person in the Renoir luncheon that I wanted to point out is the young woman holding the glass of wine to her mouth near the center of the composition: Ellen Andrée, an actress who modeled for Renoir (as well as for Degas). You may recall that in the delightful film Amelie, Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party was the painting copied once a year for the last 20 years by Amelie's reclusive artist neighbor, Richard Dufayel. In the movie the figure of Ellen Andrée comes to be associated, at least for Dufayel, with Amelie. If you have not seen Amelie, you probably really should be doing that instead of reading my blog. Perhaps I should have said that at the beginning of this very long post.
Dufayel, Amelie and 'Renoir'

Well, this luncheon is about over now.  I apologize for the length of this post, but here in Spain, as in France, the sobremesa, the leisurely hours spent at the luncheon table after the main eating is done, whiling away the minutes and hours in conversation and friendship, tend to be the best part of the meal. Whet your appetite with the brief video (make sure to put it on 720 HD and full screen) to luxuriate at the table with this now venerable group of boaters cum luncheoners and then click here to see what other Theme Thursday participants have served for lunch.


  1. ''the young woman happily playing with the dog is Renoir's beloved Aline Charigot''

    I never knew that, thanks!

  2. what neat and intersting the scrapers and the amelia...i like his work it is so full of real life...

  3. Thank you for the devotional this morning. I relished every bit of it. I, too, was taken with the son's painting and smiled at your scrapings on the gallery floor below the painting. I had not known much of what you shared in this account, and as one who adores the Orsay, it is important for me to know. So thank you.

    Now the video should be loaded, and I'll enjoy.

  4. Very nice post, Lorenzo. Caillbotte's Rainy Street painting has been one of my Chicago faves. It's huge and quite stunning in person. His Floor Scrapers is one I love, as well.

  5. Nanc Twop: Hi and welcome to the blog. If you are interested, the link I included to the Vreeland novel about this painting has more information on all of the persons at the luncheon. And you can also find more at the essay available at the Phillips Collection web page.

    Brian: Glad you enjoyed it. Have a beautiful day.

    Ruth: So glad you "relished every bit". Though the post is quite long, there is so much more I have left out from the Renoir book and the other sources cited. As a lover of the Orsay museum, you may be aware that it is largely closed for renovation works right now and much of the Impressionist collection is now on loan in a number of different shows around the world. There was a magnificent one here in Madrid that just closed and I think the next stop was San Francisco. Perhaps closer to your neck of the woods.

    willow: I have never seen the rainy day on a Paris street painting that you have had the occasion to see in Chicago. Your mention that it is large reminds me that I really should put the dimensions of the painting in the caption as well.

    The Luncheon of the Boating Party is quite large as well. Makes it much easier and more inviting to enter the scene, mingle with the characters, enjoy the breeze of the Seine, pick a grape or two off the table ...

  6. oh fabulous post! i knew about his future wife but not so much about the others. thank you!

    I have always loved his mastery of balance in this painting and as you pointed out, the sense of intimacy and crowd stll provides for us an open invitation to join them.

    i was tickled at the painting featuring in Amelie, a great little film, so subtle.

  7. Hi, Monica (of Bohemian Shadows). Speaking of Amelie, I think I should take it out on DVD and see it again. I saw it when it first came out, years ago now, and was thoroughly charmed by it. I think the first 10 minutes were some of the most magical in any films I have seen. Have a nice weekend.

  8. What a great, great post, Lorenzo. The postcard is super. I look forward to checking out the Philip's site.

    I am intrigued by Caillebotte. I blogged about him myself a while back. Great minds think alike.

    Amelie is my (2nd) favourite film.

  9. lorenzo! thanks for this amazing unpacking, revealing and fascinating post. i could take this journey over and over. i would love to sit at the table and hear the stories, watch the games being played, taste the food and wine. steven

  10. Lorenzo

    Amelie, is one of my favorites actually have it on DVD-- I do not own many - but like revisiting this one --

    A perfect post for Theme Thursday, I could get lost in that painting and secretly wish I was in the painting. Oh where dreams may go - sigh... Interested read about Caillbotte. You are better then the Art Museum curator, learned much today from you.
    You raised the bar for blogging content.

  11. Clever Pup: Hi. After your message I searched your blog for Caillebotte and found the post (from last June) that you mention. Very nice. I recommend it to everyone at

    I definitely covered some of the same ground you had so aptly surveyed a year ago.

    I agree with you that the postcard is a real treat. And of course I must ask, if Amelie is your 2nd favorite film, which is you number one?

  12. Steven: Beautiful to see you hear on the blog. We may only be able to sit at that table in our imaginations, but that will have to do. Two very able helpers for our imagination are the book I mention, Renoir, My Father by the painter's son, Jean, and the Susan Vreeland novel also mentioned and drawn on here. I have not reac her book, but from the reviews I have seen, it just has to be a great read.

    Of course, there is no substitute for going to see the Phillips Collection down in DC. It is a wonderful museum and I will never forget the time spent in the last room at the top of the house with this Renoir luncheon and a couple of stellar Van Goghs.

    Have a nice day, Steven.

  13. Joanny: So glad the post helps you lose yourself in this luncheon scene. As I mentioned in my reply above to Steven's comment, doing this post for me was akin to revisiting the painting and reliving the beautiful moments I spent there when I visited Washington DC with my wife many years ago.

    Curiously enough, she had seen it not long before that visit in Madrid when the painting formed part of a magnificent exhibition of the Phillips Collection treasures that travelled to Madrid's Reina Sofia museum (which had only been recently inaugurated as a museum). María credits that one particular painting with helping kindle what was until then a dormant interest in painting. So she has special place in her heart for that boating luncheon!

    When a painting or a poem or a musical performance or other artistic happening moves me, I feel a slight responsibility to somehow give something back in return. This painting was special for me, so doing this post was an enjoyable challenge of sorts. I really appreciate those of you would worked your way through it, as I know it was rather long.

  14. Reading this is like talking to someone who was there. It's filled with such interesting little bits of the "backstory," stuff we'd otherwise not know. Thanks.

  15. No apology needed, though I did have to visit twice to complete my meal here. I leave full and knowing more than I did when I arrived. My favorite type of meal with a friend :), thanks!

    I haven't seen the film. In fact, I am way behind on any film viewing. DVD player broke a few months ago... I need to remedy this problem. I will keep your suggestion on a long list of musts.

  16. Lorenzo

    "María credits that one particular painting with helping kindle what was until then a dormant interest in painting."

    It is funny how much we can be moved by a painting. The picture of the painting on your post is wildly popular however when you see it in person then you understand. I grow up in NY where we spent our winter days in the museums Metropolitan of Art- and Natural History Museum-- Joseph Campbell did too and expressed that was what formed his ideas that later became his writings.
    The point is here in smallish P-town we have a nice Art Museum and there was a tour of Claude Monet's works and I was so taken in by it I stood in front of what was a very large painting for so long that people were coming up and asking me questions about the painting they thought I worked there.
    I can very much relate to what Marie is saying.


  17. My children brought home Renoir coloring pages from elementary school today. It was a quiet moment for me, as I was not there to introduce them to this artist, but another teacher did.

    I was introduced to Renoir at age 12. I will never forget Mr. Harris, the teacher who introduced so much into my life. He was a Renaissance man, himself.

  18. I am sorry to be so late in leaving a comment... I hope it is not too late & you will find it here. I was excited to see this post, but because it was long, I set it aside until I had the time to enjoy it. Alas, quite a bit of time has past, but enjoy it I did. The Phillips is one of my favorite places. I attended art school at the Corcoran School of Art in DC & spent many quiet afternoons in the tiny room devoted to "The Boating Party". So for me this post was a special pleasure. I was most interested in the info about Caillebotte & his contribution to the D'Orsay. Thank you for an informative & intriguing post.
    I would also like to thank you for coming by my blog & leaving such kind comments. It is truly an honor to have you there. I first became aware of you by reading the eloquent comments you left on other peoples blogs. It was clear to me then that you were a writer. I was even more delighted when coming to your blog I discovered that you were also a lover of jazz & of the arts. I look forward to stopping by often as we share so many interests. I, too, love the film "Amelie" ....& long French/Spanish lunches.

  19. Wonderful post (seen the movie and read the book, don't worry about distracting me) I'm sorry I stumbled on this so late, I was wandering the internet trying to explain how one of my pendants was all the fault of French Impressionism... But better late than never as the saying goes.

    (And in that vein, thanks for giving Caillebotte his due, this current project is more around Monet, but Caillebotte was always one of my favorites. I love the one with the railroad bridge.)

  20. The gentleman in top hat at back is collector and critic/art historian Charles Ephrussi. For a picture of life at the time, I strongly suggest reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, which traces the Ephrussi collection, and discusses the influence of Japonisme, inter alia.


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