Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Luncheon of the Boating Party

"To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them."

--Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir has been a favourite artist of mine, since I was very young, and his portrait paintings have influenced my approach to my own art and the technique that I use. I wrote the following post for our family's homeschooling blog, after studying one of Renoir's most famous paintings, and I thought I would share my thoughts and discoveries here, on my art blog.


Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party has a special place, in our home. For a number of years, a framed print of this picture sat over our dining table and, now, it hangs on a wall, in our rumpus room, which is a centre for family activity.

Our particular version is quite faded. Like the Old Masters' originals, the colours have become quite dulled, over time. However, unlike the originals, this has not added a mellowed kind of charm to the artwork. Rather, it has left the picture looking very blue and insipid, as the vibrant reds and greens have been bleached by the sun. Looking at images of the original, while I researched for our study, made me realise just how unobservant we have become of our surroundings and how beautiful the original picture is, with its clever use of colour and its depiction of dappled sunlight.

Renoir was about 40 years old when he painted Luncheon of the Boating Party, in 1880-81. At the time, he was anxious to gain acceptance by The Salon, in Paris. This institution held the annual state art exhibition and was the recognised arbitrator of quality art, at the time. It was because of his desire for official acceptance that Renoir began to distance himself somewhat from the more radical Impressionist movement, which was decidedly anti-establishment. He had, already, achieved notable success through painting family portraits of the Parisian aristocracy, and this picture was intended to be his masterpiece. It was painted on a grand, almost life-size scale and proved to be a costly venture, both in time and money. During the six months that he worked on it, Renoir was uncertain whether he would see the project to completion. However, he persevered through financial struggles and frustrating artistic challenges to finish the painting, in early 1881.

The setting for this painting is La Maison Fournaise, a restaurant on an island near the riverside town of Chatou, in the suburbs of Paris. This town had become a popular recreation spot for tourists, who used to hold weekend boating parties here, after the shortening of the working week had freed up their leisure time. Renoir had already painted several other scenes in this location, before he started on this more ambitious project.

Part of the appeal of Renoir's painting is, I think, the cheerful and sociable atmosphere, which is apparent in the picture, and had been enjoyed by Renoir and his friends since the 1870s. The group portrayed is classless, carefree and leisurely. It is represented by artists, writers, journalists, actors, sportsmen and other professionals, and it reflects the eclectic nature of Parisian society, of which Renoir's own circle of friends and colleagues were an important part, during that period.

The painting tells the story of the vibrant cultural life of Paris, despite the fact that Renoir would, later, state:

"What is important is ...to avoid being literary and therefore to choose something that everyone knows--better still, to have no story at all...Under Louis XV, I would have been obliged to paint subjects. What seems to me the most important thing about our movement is that we have freed painting from the subject. I can paint flowers and simply call them 'flowers' without their having a story."

Renoir painted idealised images of his friends and acquaintances, rather than true likenesses. He had painted many of them before and knew them all, personally. In fact, the young woman in the foreground to the left, is his future wife, Aline Charigot. In a clever compositional maneuver, the characters look at one another, leading the eye in a continuous line through the painting. Aline, alone, looks away from the rest of the group, as she gazes at her dog.

Aline replaced the figure of a woman who, along with the seated boatsman on the right, originally, looked directly towards the viewer. This composition would have completely changed the dynamics of the picture, from one where the viewer is a mere observer of the pleasant and leisurely scene to one where the viewer feel inclusion and is, thus, compelled to take a more active role in it's interpretation.

The composition is very balanced, within the scene, despite being complicated by the large number of people, who are each individually characterised and play a role in the 'story'. The two figures, on the left, balance the larger group on the right by means of a tilting floor. Ordinarily, only the tops of the hats would be seen from this angle, so Renoir has altered the perspective to accommodate his unusual and busy composition. Dazzling whites of tablecloth and singlets, also, balance each other by their arrangement in the composition and the triangle of boater hats, in addition to forming a balance, provides a further means of directing the eye around the scene. The awning was added, later in the painting process, to unify the group within its setting and create a more cosy atmosphere.

As in Renoir's other works, different artistic techniques are used which reveal his respect for the methods of the Old Masters, along with his more progressive and innovative experimentation with light and colour. Thick, impressionist dabs of colour were applied in the foreground, while delicate light touches were swept onto the canvas in the background. In another example of his impressionist methods, he has laid down complementary colours side by side to create an impression of unified colour rather than blending the pigments on his palette. This technique has been used to render the fur of the dog, with the result that the impression of reflected light is apparent in a more dynamic way than would be possible using single, static colours.

More traditional techniques were used to paint the people, in order to achieve a smoother blending of tones. This allows for a softer, more attractive depiction of the personalities and is in direct opposition to the dabs of white and red, which create the impression of sunlight, in a balanced pattern throughout the composition.

No preliminary studies or drawings exist for this painting, which is unusual for a work of this magnitude. It appears to be a spontaneous work - the result of continuous development and reworking throughout its execution. Renoir used his friends as models, when they were available, and he made many adjustments - mostly minor but a few major ones - to their poses, as the picture developed.

Despite his progressive, impressionist methods, he looked to the Old Masters for knowledge of technique, as is seen in his treatment of portraiture. He was, particularly, influenced by 18th century Rococo artists, such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, who painted lively scenes of outdoor life amongst the leisurely French aristocracy, in the early 1700s. Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera is a good example of his skilled working of group compositions and his clever depiction of the subtleties of gesture. These were techniques which influenced Renoir and can be seen to good effect, in this painting.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party contains the elements of landscape, portraiture and still life. It succeeds in capturing a snapshot of French life, both in a spontaneous and an historic sense, and I think this goes some way to explain its lasting appeal to the generations which have followed. Not only does the work give us a glimpse of life during a particularly interesting phase of French cultural progression, it also recreates a delightful scene of good humour, companionship and light-hearted discussion, and it appears interesting, stimulating and pleasurable to the viewer, who feels at ease with the charming image.

(Further information can be found here, here and here.)

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Thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate your comments and feedback. Vicky