THE LURE OF LOTUS-EATING
 
PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR, LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY, 1880-81
(Phillips Collection, Washington)
 

    When I look at a painting by Renoir, I wonder what he’s trying to hide. His sun-dappled world is too pretty, too pleasant, too uncomplicated to be believed. If the pictures are a reflection of the person, Renoir was even-tempered, easy-going and not very deep. He is neither a lyrical nature poet like Monet nor a tormented seeker like Cézanne nor an urbane, observant ironist like Manet and Caillebotte. Among the Impressionists Renoir can be singled out as the supreme hedonist, the great painter of casual pleasures, of people doing little or nothing and doing it beautifully. When Ernest Hemingway saw a Renoir retrospective in 1934 he wrote, "There can never be enough Cézanne’s or Van Gogh’s but I believe there were plenty of Renoirs before the old man died, all very fine, but plenty."1 It is a measure of my own indifference to Renoir that I have consistently mis-remembered this quote as "You can never see enough Cézannes or Van Goghs, but you can see enough Renoirs." Renoir has long been my least favorite Impressionist, a speedbump on the road to Monet and Cézanne. In the great galleries of the world, I customarily stroll past his pretty paintings without breaking stride, moving on to something better and deeper.

    I was all the more surprised, then, when Luncheon of the Boating Party stopped me cold. Here at last is a Renoir that’s not content with being pretty. It steps across the line into beautiful. It is above all a celebration of good company, good food, good wine and good nature–with all the connotations of that last phrase. We are in a place where both nature and human nature are calm and gentle; there’s no room for psychological darkness in Renoir’s monotonously sunny world. The setting is a restaurant on an island in the Seine at Chatou, a few miles outside of Paris (the river is visible in the upper left background). This is the heart of Impressionist leisure land: not far upriver is the sailing center of Argenteuil, immortalized in the paintings of Monet, Manet and Caillebotte; just downriver is the swimming place of La Grenouillère, where Monet and Renoir inaugurated the Impressionist era in 1869. Rowing was the main attraction at Chatou, and Renoir’s diners wear the straw hats and blue dresses that were the fashionable boating attire of middle-class Parisian daytrippers. For like much of Impressionist painting, this is a completely bourgeois image with no other classes in evidence. It is a scene of the triumphant bourgeoisie celebrating an appropriately commercialized version of the fête champêtre in a place that was once a playground of the aristocracy. By 1880, nearly a century after the Revolution, the French middle classes were comfortable enough to party like aristocrats, and in Renoir they found their Watteau.

    Renoir, along with Rubens, Fragonard and Matisse, is one of painting’s apostles of pure pleasure. But unadulterated pleasure can be a dangerous thing. It’s very easy to overdose. In some of his works prior to Luncheon of the Boating Party–I’m thinking particularly of the Rower’s Luncheon at the Art Institute of Chicago–Renoir creates visions that are almost too lovely. He combines extremely loose, sketchy brushwork with a light that seems to infuse the canvas and glow out from within for a total effect that is so powerful, so intoxicating, that the technique threatens to overwhelm the subjects; the vigorous brushstrokes and vibrating colors clash with the scene’s depiction of leisurely repose. But the Boating Party presents no such difficulties. Here Renoir turns down the volume, adopting a more traditional linear style (especially for the man in the right foreground) that hints at the dramatic turn Renoir’s work will take over the next few years as he renounces Impressionism and attempts to paint in a more Ingresque manner. (Umbrellas, a famously schizophrenic canvas shared by the London National Gallery and the Hugh Lane in Dublin, dramatically records the change: one half is loose and Impressionist, the other hard-edged and restrained.) In addition to accommodating the casual mood of the piece and giving our eyes a bit of a rest, Renoir’s more linear brushwork sets off by contrast the work’s loosest and most beautiful passage, the large still life on the foreground table.

    Since everyone who writes or speaks of this painting focuses on the figures, I intend to give Renoir’s people short shrift and concentrate on a detailed examination of the tabletop. (The people are just the usual Impressionist suspects, anyway: Renoir’s friends and models posing as typical members of the Parisian bourgeoisie.) I will attempt to understand the entire work in terms of this single large part, a passage that stands alongside Manet’s late flower paintings at the summit of Impressionist still life. This is hardly an arbitrary choice. Renoir emphasizes the importance of the tabletop by elaborately framing it with people and chairs and echoing its rectangular shape in the railing, canopy and surrounding foliage and even in the shape of the painting itself. The table is both an open door leading us into the Boating Party and the culmination of the entire work, the centerpiece of Renoir’s banquet. It is the beating heart of this painting, the place where the work comes alive as it passes from pleasingly pretty to astonishingly beautiful.

    Immediately we notice that the line between still life and figures is far from clear-cut. Indeed, Renoir encourages us to see the two women at the table as part of the still life ensemble. They both lean on the tabletop while the three nearest men are pointedly separated from it, suggesting that for Renoir women are essentially decorative creatures, beautiful ornaments in the garden of pleasure. (Lest this damn the painter, let it be said that his men are hardly more complex; anyone seeking psychological depth should look elsewhere.) These two ornaments in blue frame the still life at its opposite corners. Renoir’s future wife Aline (the woman with the dog) wears on her hat a fiery burst of orange-red flowers that is itself a lovely still life, glowing brilliantly against the man’s white shirt just as the other objects shine out against the white tablecloth. The very dark blue of Aline’s dress is picked up by the grapes in the compote and the wine in the center bottle. Similarly, the lighter blue dress of the other woman (actress and model Ellen Andrée, looking much more attractive here than in Degas’s Absinthe) is matched by the subtle blue shadows around the glasses crowded together near the center of the table. Even Aline’s dog is carefully harmonized into the color scheme, its decidedly dull, non-Impressionist coloring rhyming with that of the bottle to its immediate right. A wonderful creation of visible brushstrokes, the dog reminds me of the cats that slink across the table in a few of Chardin’s still lifes. It’s not a terribly unusual element, and its presence, even on the pristine tabletop, doesn’t jar us. Like all of nature in Renoir, the dog is pleasant and tame.

    The upswept tablecloth and angled forearms of the nearest people carry us into the still life. The empty glass near Aline’s arm is a kind of overture to Renoir’s masterful renditions of glassware throughout the painting, his bravura imitations of the play of light and color, of transparency and opacity. At the left edge of the glass, Renoir places a few streaks of light blue, showing us how the color of Aline’s sleeve is affected by its passage through the white reflections on the glass, producing a hue very close to that of the sunlit water in the background. What really brings this glass–and all the glasses on the table–to life, however, is Renoir’s use of impasted white highlights. Thick, heavy dabs of pure white, like the one at the bottom of this first glass, unexpectedly create an effect of lightness: that beautiful, shimmering, vibrating quality that energizes the tabletop and makes the adjective ‘still’ a misnomer for this kind of life.

    Leaving this first glass, my eyes are drawn up to the compote, a form that, due to its upward sweeping brushwork, seems like an emanation of the tablecloth, a section of the soft cloth that has risen up and hardened to porcelain. This is appropriate, for in addition to being a symbol of abundance and fertility, overflowing with fruit, the compote is a visual metaphor for the table as a whole. A white form on which a still life is raised and centered, the compote is a key to understanding the deep relationship between the composition of the tabletop and that of the painting’s human figures. These two compositions that seem so casually independent are in fact elaborately and beautifully rhymed. The cluster of glasses to the right of the compote suggests the six figures crowded into two triangular groups on the painting’s right side. The geometric group of wine bottles parallels the intricately interlocked triangles formed by the people at the middle of the painting, a relationship driven home by the witty formal rhyme of the red corks on the two rear bottles with the tophat and cap worn by the two men at the back of the terrace. Even the lone wine bottle displaced to the left might represent the girl who leans on the railing, somewhat detached from the other figures. Finally, the goblet and wineglass in the foreground, together yet separate, parallel the relationship of Aline and the man standing behind her. And even as this glassware is arranged around the compote like the people around the table, the green and blue tones on the bottles pick up the colors of the surrounding foliage, water and sky. In a very real sense, the whole painting is right here on the tabletop.

    I walk up close to the canvas and look at the group of overlapping glasses. If a paint surface can be described as ‘delicious,’ this is it. We enjoy it like food, like wine. The brushwork is incredibly loose and sketchy, each glass a mere outline brought to life and given volume by Renoir’s kinetic brushstrokes and those everpresent white highlights. A few touches of red paint put a little wine in the bottoms of the glasses. When we back up a few feet, the brushstrokes resolve into form, but they remain active, alive and sparkling with color and light. This loose and obvious brushwork is the only kind of work shown in Renoir’s leisurely painting, and it shimmers out toward the viewer with the power to overturn the entire image. This is where the painter gives us an opportunity to pull back the curtain and see the mechanics behind his illusion, the careful painterly work that underlies all this carefree play. It is a reminder that the entire large painting is but a construction of pigment and brushes, and that even the most solid-looking things, like the arm of the man in the right foreground, are as insubstantial as the sketchy glasses near his hand. Like the leisure activity it portrays, Renoir’s painting is an elaborately conceived and constructed thing. Both the activity and the image are characteristic products of bourgeois society, designed to distract viewers and participants from the mundane realities of life in this new world.

    Work. That’s the dreary four-letter word Renoir is trying to hide. And its concealment may explain the conservative turn in Renoir’s painting during the 1880's. His loosest Impressionist brushwork simply showed too much, gave too much away. It was a disruptive, destabilizing force with the power to crash his carefully created dreams.

    Work is also one of the realities that Renoir’s characters are escaping. The parallel between Renoir and Watteau should not be drawn too strongly, because Renoir shows us a temporary outing, not an idealized way of life. It is a summer excursion into the countryside around Paris, just far enough from the city to forget about urban work and worry. We are witnessing the birth of the modern leisure industry, when the bourgeoisie branched out into the countryside to profit from people escaping their dismal cities. Renoir’s people are clearly enjoying themselves, but we should not forget that their pleasure depends on suppressing any thoughts of that other life back in the city. A difficult feat, perhaps, given that in the distant background, partly hidden by the restaurant canopy, we can see a railroad bridge that crosses the Seine and connects this island with Paris and reality. Needless to say, none of Renoir’s diners are looking toward the bridge.

    In other words, the pleasure depicted in this painting is based on not thinking too much. I suspect that a viewer’s pleasure depends on the same principle. To fully appreciate Renoir, one must be a bit of a lotus eater. In Luncheon of the Boating Party the painter works his magic and transforms paint into wine, a powerful intoxicant, pure pleasure; and we must put our urge to deconstruct in abeyance and allow ourselves to simply (or complexly) enjoy. We should accept Renoir’s invitation and enter his world, practice the art of enjoyment. There’s plenty of wine left in the bottles, and they’ve saved a place for us at the table. The power of this painting is the power of pleasure. The point is to enjoy it, to drink it in.
 
 
NOTES

1. Hemingway, By-Line, 134.

 
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