Earlier this year, I was at the library looking for an audiobook to entertain myself during a long drive. To my disappointment, I had already listened to all the available P.G. Wodehouse works. I started skimming backward through the shelves, and my eyes fell upon "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" by Susan Vreeland.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir has long been one of my favorite painters (Dance at Bougival, Young Girls at the Piano, etc.), and Luncheon of the Boating Party (Le déjeuner des canotiers) is possibly his best, combining people, still-life elements, and a shimmering river landscape in one convivial scene. I borrowed a print of it from my father a few years ago, and it has hung in my bedroom ever since. So I checked out the 14-CD set, despite knowing nothing of the author.
That's one of the things I really enjoy about libraries: serendipitous finds! I love looking at the new arrivals, and I love wandering the stacks, discovering stories that have been waiting for me all along. And because they're free to users, I can try anything, however random and far that offering may be from my usual reading habits.
(Library collections are not actually random, of course, having been carefully selected and curated by librarians. Each book, audiobook, or other resource is one that an expert thought worth spending funds on from a limited budget and making space for on finite shelves. It's just that an individual user's experience of the collections can be random — in a fun way — if that's how one chooses to approach them.)
Vreeland's story starts in July 1880 with Auguste — as Renoir is almost always called throughout the book — crashing his cutting-edge steam-cycle on the way to Maison Fournaise, a riverside restaurant/hotel that rents boats. After the proprietor's daughter patches him up, and urges him to do a painting from the terrace there, he becomes infuriated by reading Emile Zola's review of the latest Impressionist art exhibit. Zola claims that the paintings show a lack of thoughtful preparation, offering glimpses of ideas but never achieving any masterpieces.
Impressionism is the name that critics pejoratively gave to a movement away from the rigid, government-sponsored Salon system by a loose collection of independent artists. The rebels chose to paint contemporary life (la via moderne) rather than classical/historical subjects, and in general, they strove to depict fleeting moments outdoors (en plein air) rather than in studios, using short strokes of vibrantly juxtaposed color rather than longer lines. Traditionalists thought these paintings looked more like sketches than finished works. In the book, Zola's dismissive review of the Impressionist movement spurs Auguste to finally abandon commissioned portraits and create a masterpiece that will express all his ideas and elevate his reputation forever.
Auguste cajoles more than a dozen friends and acquaintances into serving as models, paid or not, and sets up weekly lunch-and-painting sessions on that terrace that he will seek to blend into one impressionistic scene. During the next two months, he struggles over cash, composition, and caprice, as well as his past, his future, and the future of Impressionism. He also falls at least halfway into love a couple of times.
Love is nearly everything to Auguste. Painting is all about pleasure and passion for him, and he must find something to love about each of his models. Indeed, one short painting scene verges close to soft pornography, so much so that I wondered if Vreeland was putting the reader on with her suggestive metaphors: "With his brush loaded and juicy, he pushed the wet tip gently into the hidden folds of her skirt..."
But the author also creates many gorgeous word-pictures throughout the book, such as this:
"The river glistened with silver highlights riding on the ripples between blue-green furrows, the colors distinct, then blending, then separating as the water moved relentlessly under the bridge. He realized he'd let her go without explaining to her the Impressionist vision of broken strokes, perfectly visible from here."
And here's another scene with him, talking to the proprietor's daughter as she rows him along the river:
"The world is ravishing, Alphonsine. Just look. The distinct colors of the water quivering like moiré silk, the lattice of shadows made by branches shifting, that mallard with the iridescent head, posing for me so the light catches his white neck ring."
Posing for me? Oh yes, Vreeland's Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a bit self-centered, although he also struggles with self-doubt. He makes some judgments and decisions that I dislike, and he demonstrates some capacity for self-delusion. But it's also admirable how he stands and fights for what he believes.
It's to Vreeland's credit that she makes the story of the painting itself gripping, even though it's obvious in hindsight that Auguste did manage to resolve all his financial, technical, and personal conflicts well enough to create his masterpiece. But the book is not just about the painting. It's not even just about the painter. It's also about the people and the times of la vie moderne.
Vreeland draws complex characters, including actresses, a seamstress, and other models, and several of Auguste's colleagues and patrons. Changing viewpoints among some of them allows for a far broader portrait of life as people strive to heal their spirits and seize joy after the Franco-Prussian War, or simply to survive, than sticking to his perspective would have. Vreeland also deftly changes moods again and again as she depicts scenes of humor, pathos, arguments, moral courage, and even what some might call immoral courage, all for art. I found the immersion into this era fascinating and richly rewarding.
Since I experienced Vreeland's book in audio form, I also need to talk about its reading by Karen White. First of all, listening to the audio version forced me to slow down and appreciate the poetic passages that I otherwise might have skimmed past while proceeding with the plot. Moreover, White's delivery enhanced the book a great deal for me. She brought out the gruffness, sharpness, smoothness, and sweetness of various characters, with warmth and wit, world-weariness or petulance as appropriate to the dialogue. In the narration, her voice expressed both the hectic crowdedness of the city and the floating langour of the river. I don't speak French, so I have no idea how well White pronounces the accents and French words sprinkled throughout the text (always with context, so I was never left wondering for long what something meant); however, I think I felt the mood of the times more deeply this way than if I had simply read Vreeland's words.
I was very pleased to find out in the Author's Note at the end that Luncheon of the Boating Party is not, as I had expected, hanging somewhere in France. It has been in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., since 1923. I will definitely make a visit there next time I'm in the area!
In Vreeland's book, Auguste insists on hand-blown glasses for the lunch parties, rather than mass-produced ones, because "it's important to see in a thing the person who made it." I can't wait to see his real painting for myself, and take a long, long, look at the world his eyes saw and his hand painted, the world I inhabited through Vreeland's words for a few weeks this year while driving.