Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2012

Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007), by Susan Vreeland

Girl in Hyacinth Blue Luncheon of the Boating Party Susan Vreeland is an American author of historical fiction who specialises in vivid novelisations of art and artists, and like Girl in Hyacinth Blue Luncheon of the Boating Party is based around a particular painting.  Ever since I read The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary I’ve looked out for books that explore the mind of the artist, and I had also enjoyed Vreeland’s Passion of Artemesia – about the first woman admitted to the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florenceand The Forest Lover – about the ground-breaking Canadian artist Emily Carr. So when I saw this one at the library, I snapped it up.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Wikipedia Commons)

Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Pierre- Auguste Renoir was one of his major paintings, completed in 1880-1881.  He painted it from life, depicting a group of his friends on the balcony at the Maison Fournaise on the River Seine in Chatou, a suburb of Paris.  He wanted to show Paris enjoying the good life, in recovery from the horrors of the Franco-Prussian war,  and he wanted to capture the conviviality of everyday people relaxing in an everyday situation (rather than the conservative themes of the pre-Impressionist era).   Wikipedia tells us that these friends include:

  • His patron, Gustave Caillebotte, seated facing his chair on the lower right.
  • Actress Angèle Legault (in blue) and the journalist Adrien Maggiolo leaning over her shoulder
  • Eugène Pierre Lestringez and Paul Lhote, also an artist, flirting with the actress Jeanne Samary in the upper righthand corner of the painting.
  • Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy collector, wearing a top hat, talking with (probably) Jules Laforgue, his personal secretary and also a poet, wearing a brown coat and cap
  • The actress Ellen Andrée in the centre with her face obscured by her glass of water and next to her
  • Baron Raoul Barbier sitting with his back to the viewer.
  • Renoir’s future wife, the seamstress Aline Charigot, on the left, fondling a dog.
  • The restaurant-owner’s daughter Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise (leaning on the railing) and
  • her brother, Alphonse Fournaise, Jr, in the foreground on the left.

But who is the man obscured by Maggiolo’s shoulder?  According to notes in the back of Vreeland’s tale, his identity is unknown.  It could be Guy de Maupassant or it could be Renoir himself.  Whoever he was, he was needed to balance the composition.  A person had to be there for Ellen to be talking to, and a 14th person was also needed because Renoir was worried that superstitious buyers would have rejected a painting with 13 subjects.

(This reminds me of when CD cover shots were done of The Australian Cotton Club Orchestra in its heyday (when The Spouse was leader, arranger and trombone soloist extraordinaire.  You can hear a track on iTunes here.)  For reasons I can’t remember, the then piano player had absented himself, so The Offspring was decked out in a white dinner suit and sat facing the piano so that only his broad back can be seen. Will future scholars researching the history of big band jazz in Melbourne sweat for years to discover the identity of this ‘piano-player’?)

In her novel, Vreeland imagines the complex process by which Renoir’s masterpiece came to be, and she includes a scene where a girl called Circe flounces out half way through the painting and refuses to participate any more because Renoir wanted to paint her in profile rather than face-on.  Even then, sitters knew that their faces might become famous.  They could never have imagined how famous, not then, when Impressionism was struggling to find its place.  (See my review of The Judgement of Paris, by Ross King, a wonderful book which explains the politics of the Paris art world in this period.)

Vreeland writes convincingly about Renoir’s ambitions for the picture, how his difficulties in paying for the paint and canvas were resolved through his own enterprise and the generosity of friends and patrons, and about his complex negotiations with his subjects to persuade them to attend at the restaurant and pose for long periods of time.  (Think about Caillebotte, leaning backwards on that chair for ages – ouch!)

Even when he’d persuaded everyone to come along for the sittings, Renoir felt constant anxiety each Sunday about whether they would continue to come and to turn up as agreed.  Also, with a painting of this size and scope, it wasn’t easy to maintain the same details from week to week – what film makers call continuity.  The apparently casual table napkins and empty bottles had to be replaced exactly as they had been while clean linen and fresh wine were supplied each week.  In the novel it is Augustine who (for reasons of the heart) does this.

Luncheon of the Boating Party is an interesting book for anyone interested in art,  and although never a page-turner, there is enough of a plot to carry the story along.  Tension is provided by the quest to find the fourteenth member of the group; the romantic triangle of Renoir, Augustine and Aline; and the politics of keeping the Impressionists group together in the face of sustained opposition from the Salon and also from the birth of new movements such as the Realists.

Most enjoyable.

Author: Susan Vreeland
Title: Luncheon of the Boating Party
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2007
ISBN: 9780670038541
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Luncheon of the Boating Party


  1. I have read a couple of Vreeland’s books, and keep on meaning to read more. I really enjoyed this outing with the artists when I read it a while ago. I must request Clara and Mr Tiffany again and actually read it this time!


  2. I am so inspired to visit Chatou after reading this novel, though I know it won’t be anything like it was then! Vreeland makest it sound so ideal! The good news is the restaurant which, according to its website had gone to ‘crack and ruin’ has now been restored and you can have yourself some lunch on the very same balcony. Definitely on my Paris to-do list! Here’s my pinterest link to the restaurant if you fancy a look..


    • Hello, Suzi, welcome to ANZ LitLovers! *chuckle* I sure don’t need much encouragement to add a restaurant to my itinerary either!


  3. Sounds like an interesting book, Lisa.

    Did you know Charles Ephrussi plays a starring role in Edmund de Waal’s Hare With the Amber Eyes? He is one of Edmund’s relatives and was the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.


  4. Haven’t read Vreeland. Seems somewhat similar to Tracy Chevalier of “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”.


    • Hi Tony, Vreeland is a bit more literary, a little less popular fiction than Chevalier. I like them both, but I find I learn more from Vreeland, and since I am a complete ignoramus about art, I value that! How I wish I had studied fine arts at University!!


  5. A great idea for a book. Love the photo of your husband’s jazz band too – what a find for future historians of Australian jazz


    • Hi, Tom, one day maybe, I might get round to sorting out the band’s archives….


  6. […] a former art historian and academic, and it appealed to me straight away because like the novels of Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier, The Longing is an historical novel about art and artists – except this […]


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