Luncheon of the Boating Party

Written by Susan Vreeland
Review by Bethany Latham

Paris, 1880. Pierre-Auguste Renoir is thirty-nine, his enchantment with the revolutionary Impressionist style is fading, and the movement threatens to splinter. Renoir paints society women for money, but longs to produce something monumental, a tableau of la vie moderne which cannot be ignored by critics and will cement his career. He settles on the theme of a boating party luncheon, set on the terrace of the Maison Fournaise, a hotel/restaurant on the banks of the Seine.

Vreeland, known for her other novels based on art history, has crafted another masterwork. Her expressive, enviable prose vibrantly imbues both Renoir and his models with life. These are all captivating people, and as Vreeland follows each against the background of Renoir’s art, she uses words to paint la vie moderne through their eyes. Paris and the banks of the Seine come alive, as do the models, from the feisty actress Angele to the tragically selfless widow Alphonsine. Renoir is obsessed with his art and is, in modern parlance, a player, for which his excuse is that he must love a woman in order to paint her. This loses him sympathy points, but like all the historical figures Vreeland has characterized here, he is refreshingly human and strikingly real.

Vreeland’s other masterstroke is her absorbing portrayal of the progression by which great art comes into being. Like Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, Luncheon of the Boating Party may look like a spontaneous moment frozen in time, but this effect is the result of months of consideration, posed models, and homage to classical paintings such as the Marriage Feast at Cana. From her vivid description of colors to the play of light to the minutest of brush strokes, Vreeland shows the inspiration and technical knowledge behind the process of painting—all without devolving into a dry art history lesson.

This novel is a beautiful, lyrical, fascinating portrait of painting, personalities, and a particular moment in the river of time. Very highly recommended.