Book Review: Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

With the publication of The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland debuted as a best-selling author of historical fiction. Two more novels followed—The Passion of Artemesia and The Forest Lover. And then a collection of short stories appeared—Life Studies. This body of work established Vreeland as an imaginative writer of fictional works about art and artists. In her new book, Luncheon of the Boating Party, Vreeland turns her attention to one of the most famous of Renoir canvasses, using that remarkable work to create an equally remarkable novel that evokes the social atmosphere of late nineteenth century Paris and its surrounds.

The story opens in the summer of 1880. Literally racing toward a painting he has planned for Île de Chatou, a leisure town along the Seine some miles outside Paris, Pierre-Auguste Renoir nonetheless seems to be in a creative slump. He longs for the return of the “thrill of breaking new ground,” like on the day he and Monet “discovered that juxtaposed patches of contrasting color could show the movement of sunlit water….” It might pay the rent but “repeating safe easy methods portrait after portrait, as he’d been doing lately, was suffocating him.” Moments later, he crashes the motorized bicycle he’s been riding. As he recovers he notices the name of the model: “La vie moderne. Modern life. He chortled. That was the subject matter of the new painting movement, as precarious as the steam cycle.”

Renoir wants to paint “la vie moderne…But how? That was the more perplexing question, the underlying issue agitating him lately. Impressionist or traditional?” Impressionism, the movement he helped co-found with fellow artists Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley, appears to be riddled with internal strife—who are its legitimate standard bearers, where and how should they paint and exhibit their works, what are its proper subjects; in short, what is the future of the movement? And to add insult to injury, Renoir learns that the critic Emile Zola, an early supporter of the movement, seems to have changed his opinion: “The man of genius has not yet arisen. We can see what they intend…but we seek in vain the masterpiece that is to lay down the formula…” Where, Zola wondered, was that work that was based on “long and thoughtful preparation.”

Vreeland uses the twin catalysts of Renoir’s internal struggle and Zola’s challenge to motivate the plot—“What Zola wanted was just what he needed to do—the major work he’d imagined here [at Chatou] for years…An encore to Moulin [Bal au Moulin de Galette], but this had to surpass Moulin…This would be the fight of his life.” Through a third-person omniscient narrator whose lush, richly textured descriptions paint both the interior and exterior points of view of key characters in the story behind the story of Renoir’s painting, Vreeland magically evokes the mise-en-scene of Impressionist Paris and its suburban surrounds.

Vreeland’s carefully and thoroughly researched narrative creates a palpable, sometimes too-thickly, almost Rococo-textured impression of some of the major sights, sounds, colors, smells, and tastes of late nineteenth century bohemian Paris. Café life, the art world, Montmartre, the literary and social salons of bourgeois Paris, the seventy-two day siege known as the Paris Commune of 1871 and more help “set the positions and values over the whole canvas” of the novel. Yet, it is the process of painting, and the characters themselves—Renoir and his friends and models—that ultimately carry the novel.

“Let them see…the workings of his hand. If viewers saw only the things depicted and not the act of painting, they were missing half the pleasure,” Renoir muses. Vreeland agrees and brushes her text with thick daubs of passages describing the artist at work. “He squeezed out paint onto the palette, small, lovely dollops shining in the sun…He bent the hogs’ hair of his brand new broad flat to break the sizing and try out the balance of it. Where to make the first stroke?...He slashed a diagonal for the railing with the palest, most watery ultramarine and rose madder diluted with linseed and turpentine…Pure joy to touch down here and there.”

Vreeland is at her best when the vivacity and surety of her dazzling prose captures the artist at work. Color, timbre, and mood blend brilliantly into a compelling depiction of the act of painting and representation of a painter as much possessed by his subjects as he wishes to possess them. “The important thing,” Renoir tells one of his models, “is not what’s going on, but how it conveys what’s going on…Painting, the act of it, that’s what’s important.”

Yet Vreeland takes an incredible risk by making process—“Painting, the act of it”--the subject of her novel. To make her subjects—painting, people, the convulsed social life of Paris itself--come alive to serve the purpose of this story risks turning them into caricatures of themselves, objects to be manipulated to create a desired shimmering effect. That this mimics in verbal representation Renoir’s visual process is both the novel’s strength and its weakness. “If I had wanted to tell a story I would have used a pen,” Renoir declares. But Vreeland is telling a story. The question is: has she found the right form for the kind of story she wants to tell?

At times, one feels Vreeland working, like Renoir, at cross-purposes, trying to force a more traditionally structured approach to the novel—a well-plotted story thick with descriptively rich characterizations and detailed scenes—into service to more modern, “impressionistic” ends. For instance, Vreeland represents Renoir’s arrogant obsession with being known as “a painter of women” by coloring her narrative with sexual innuendoes and even quoting Renoir’s own infamous statements about women: “I can’t see myself getting into bed with a lawyer, if there are such female monsters. I like women best when they don’t know how to read, and when they wipe their babies’ bottoms themselves.” Yet, she resists crafting a more complex portrait of Renoir’s misogyny, choosing instead to distill it to the forbidden, yet sacred, essence fueling his art: “When a painter finds someone like that, and pretty too, he’s so grateful for her, so thrilled by what they do together, that it’s natural to want more, to ride his excitement farther by loving entry into the depths of her, and to bring her into ecstasy…That’s not philandery. It’s sacrament. It’s communion.”

For Vreeland, this is certainly true: art is sacred. It can emit “a blessedness”, creating a kind of healing force of light in the world. Certainly, that’s one way to read “the incandescence” of Renoir’s work. As Vreeland has described in interviews, the beauty she saw in “the placidness of Monet's garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists” gave her strength when she faced a serious health challenge. On one level, Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is a lyrical ode to “that state of grace” she perceives in Renoir’s canvas.

In the final chapter, Vreeland turns the narrative over to Alphonsine Fournais, whose first person declaration—“I saw his life and his life’s work as one great, open-armed cry of love”--is meant to leave the lasting impression. Yet Vreeland’s loaded “[her] darks as well as [her] lights.” Her portrait of art as “love made visible” and of Renoir as “the painter of happiness” seems tantalizingly unfinished, a little like Renoir’s Luncheon without the awning.