A century ago, before Paris's outlying districts became commuter bedrooms, restaurants and inns lined the Seine. It was a time when scenes from "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" played along the riverbank.
Perhaps Pierre-Auguste Renoir's best-known work, that painting depicts a lively gathering on the island of Chatou -- in particular, its Maison Fournaise, a riverside inn where the artist found the bright summer light, colorful characters and cafe ambiance that inspired his canvases. "I have been detained at Chatou because of my painting," he wrote a friend while completing "Boating Party," now owned by Washington's Phillips Collection. "If you would be so kind to come and dine with me here, you will not regret the journey ... this is the most beautiful place in the whole of Paris."
Renoir moved on, and the Maison Fournaise began to deteriorate. By 1979, ravaged by years of neglect and frequent flooding, the historic inn was slated for demolition.
Now, after a 15-year restoration battle, "Luncheon" is once again being served at the Maison Fournaise. With a combined $1 million raised from the local and French governments, and sizable private-sector donations, the once-celebrated second-story restaurant reopened this weekend. It is nothing short of magic, an evocative re-creation of a spirited time and place.
Renoir's discovery of Chatou began in 1869, when he and the impressionist Claude Monet (residing in nearby Bougival) together produced several pictures of La Grenouillere, a popular floating cafe moored along the island's southern tip. It was, however, a rowing invitation in 1872 by Gustave Caillebotte, a wealthy painter who kept several canoes at the Fournaises', that led him to the Maison Fournaise.
Opened as a boathouse by Alphonse Fournaise in 1860, the family-run inn was already a noted country rendezvous for politicians,writers and artists, who filled their weekends with rowing parties and evening dances. "The chic thing," observed Renoir in a letter, "was to bring your girlfriends to Chatou on Sundays and take them rowing. Some even left them there for several days to get the full benefit of the fresh air."
As Monet would later discover Giverny along the Seine, Renoir had found his private garden at Chatou. "I was always spoiled chez Fournaise, finding there as many pretty girls as I could wish to paint," Renoir wrote to a friend.
Falling captive to the boathouse parade of characters and tranquil countryside, Renoir stayed. For the next decade, the inn became the nomadic painter's passion and summer residence. There he held court with other painters, such as James Whistler, and spent time with friends, such as rowing partner and novelist Guy de Maupassant.
Canvases of the period -- "Spring at Chatou," "The Rowers' Lunch," "Oarsmen at Chatou," "La Grenouillere," "Fin de Dejeuner" and "On the Terrace" -- characteristically display an endless summer afternoon. Equally evocative are the family portraits -- "Mlle. Fournaise," "Man with a Pipe" -- although, unquestionably, Renoir's favorite subject was the innkeepers' daughter. "Alphonsine With Fringe" and "On the Balcony" depict a wistful young woman with whom it's said the entire village, including the artist, was in love.
Renoir was not alone in his appreciation of Chatou's charms.
Other impressionists, including Monet, Degas, Seurat, van Gogh, Manet, Gauguin, Sisley and Pissarro, traveled to Chatou by train over the arched wooden railway bridge to paint the island's park-like scenes. Later, fauvists Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck frequented the Fournaises' dining room, along with still more artists, writers and poets. Today their souvenir drawings and verse remain scrawled on its walls.
Challenged by Emile Zola in 1880 to produce a significant canvas worthy of his talent, Renoir withdrew to Chatou. Posing friends along the newly installed balcony in sittings that extended over months, he worked summer into fall; then, dissatisfied, winter into spring.
At first appearing to be a casual gathering of belle e'poque figures caught like tintypes, "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" in fact encapsulates 10 years of life and work in a single canvas, creating a complete document of Renoir at Chatou.
Based in style and composition on his earlier "Le Moulin de la Galette," the group includes recognizable recruits from the artist's Parisian and suburban worlds. The young model Aline Charigot (whom he later married) is seated on the left. Behind her is Alphonse Fournaise Jr. (described by Maupassant as the "boss of the establishment, a strong boy with red beard and celebrated vigor"). Alphonsine, his sister, leans on the balcony beneath a glimpse of sailboats. In the background, Charles Durand-Ruel, Renoir's art dealer, is the top-hatted figure. Others depicted include Fournaise Sr., artists Andre Lhote and Eugene Lestingreux, and a bare-armed Caillebotte astride the chair in the right foreground.
Finishing in 1881, Renoir, complaining of exhaustion, completed only one other canvas at Fournaise, "The Seine at Chatou," before voyaging abroad. At Algiers and Venice he found other styles, other scenes, to paint that moved him from impressionist circles. And the river.
His rowing partner remained behind.
Staying on the river until his death in 1893, Maupassant continued to chronicle it, often casting the Fournaises into short stories set upon the Seine. In the "Fly," subtitled "Reminiscences of a Rowing Man," he explains, "For ten years, my great, my only, my absorbing passion was the Seine, that lovely, calm, varied, stinking river, full of mirages and filth. I think I loved it so much because it gave me the feeling of being alive."
When the general Parisian rage for rowing faded at the turn of the century, Chatou continued to hold its attraction for artists and writers. Matisse and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire came frequently after 1890 to visit Alphonsine, who continued operating Maison Fournaise until her death in 1937, at age 91. In 1906, Degas, nearly blind, paid a final call on the innkeeper, whose hospitality he'd enjoyed for 40 years.
"There was a magic to the islands of the Seine. A unique atmosphere to the auberges along the river," suggests Henri Claudel, president of the Friends of the Maison Fournaise. "They were meeting places. Artists met writers, mixed with poets ...
"But there was no other auberge like this. This was a restaurant Parisien descended into country."
Fifteen years ago, the Maison Fournaise was an oft-flooded ruin slated for demolition. Volunteers began a last-minute preservation effort, winning a four-year campaign for city acquisition, they applying for historic-monument designation and beginning a 10-year stop-and-start funding drive. "These things take time," smiles Claudel, deputy mayor of Chatou, "because we were working with the government."
The inn's high mansard roof of slate has been repaired, its rambling courtyard repaved. The brick-and-plaster exterior has been restored; the cracked panes bordering its stained glass windows have been replaced. Artists retouched Realier-Dumas's humorous trompe l'oeil paintings on the building's exterior.
The interior is no less significant. Behind a carved carriage entry, a period brasserie near the inn's courtyard canoe sheds offers garden dining. Above, up the narrow stairwells, the Fournaises' celebrated second-story restaurant has emerged after a three-year restoration as a detailed re-creation of its former glory.
Removing interior walls and modernizing the kitchen, project architects enhanced the restaurant's sense of light and airiness. Turning the room fully onto the iron balcony (originally added in 1877 as an afterthought, with the elaborately entwined initials "AF"), they've created a corner overlook on the river. Through tall fold-back glass doors ("the same ones as in Renoir's time," Claudel notes) below the drape of a striped awning, the balcony -- which wraps the building like a ship's prow -- leads to a small dance pavilion.
There was also an unanticipated bonus. Last winter, workers removing plaster and ragged wallpaper revealed six frescoes. Now restored, they decorate the dining room with bright fairground scenes of chimps and soldiers.
Research for the restaurant extended to everything from the tablecloths to the cuisine. "Like Madame Fournaise's own, it's not fancy, just bonne cuisine familiale," Claudel says.
Climbing to the top floor, Claudel enters a corner bedroom, which next year will contain exhibits on the inn and its celebrated guests. Visible from a window is a five-story dwelling in ruins across the courtyard. It's the Restaurant Levanneur, the only other building of Renoir's era to survive on the island. The artists Derain and Vlaminck once had an apartment there, Claudel says.
The impoverished pair, he relates, befriended by Alphonsine, dined often in her company with fashion pioneer Paul Poiret and his proteges, Raoul Dufy and Erte. In 1905, "borrowing a handcart, they walked the distance to Paris's Salon des Independants," Claudel says. "When they returned, newspapers had already arrived hailing them 'The Fathers of Fauvism.' "
Encouraged by their renovation of Maison Fournaise, volunteers have now acquired the neighboring structure. An arts and museum complex is planned.
Already, since summer, small boats and pleasure craft have begun returning, curious owners mooring along the arched wooden railway bridge built in 1860, walking a trail along the island to inspect construction. Next June, Chatou plans major expansion of its annual costumed Impressionist Festival, with art shows, dancing and races. There is even talk of instituting ferry service between Chatou and Giverny, about 90 minutes downriver.
"This will all be very much alive again, with its terraces open, and summer dancing," says Claudel, from the balcony where Renoir's easel once stood. "The young will come for lunch, the ateliers will be crowded with artists... .
"It's important for Art. And with the river, it's very pretty in spring."
Peter Mikelbank is a writer based in Paris. WAYS AND MEANS
GETTING THERE: The island of Chatou is about 20 minutes west of Paris via the city's RER commuter train, line A1. From the Chatou/Croissy station, the Maison Fournaise is a five-minute walk north along the Seine.
If you're driving, follow the N13 toward St.-Germain-en-Laye, from La Defense to the N190. Exit at mid-river, just before Chatou. Parking is available on the island.
Motorists may also want to visit tiny Auvers-sur-Oise, 30 minutes north, which was frequented by the artists Renoir, Cezanne and van Gogh. Van Gogh is buried in a hilltop cemetery about 300 yards past the village.
WHEN TO GO: The Restaurant Fournaise is open seven days a week (closed Mondays in winter) for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m.; the restaurant remains open for afternoon tea and serves dinner from 7 to 11 p.m. Reservations for the historic dining room are recommended. Specify your choice of location in advance, either indoors in the Salle Fournaise or, weather permitting, outdoors ("sur le balcon a` la co~te du Seine").
By Parisian standards, prices are moderate. A fixed-price lunch for two runs about $20 in the brasserie or terrace; lunch or dinner in the dining room starts at about $30, without wine, and can run up to $100 or $125.
Inquire about the restaurant's monthly literary teas, which are scheduled to begin in November to discuss the writer and artist communities at Fournaise.
WHAT TO SEE: Portions of the museum are still under construction and will be completed in early spring, along with final landscaping. The third-floor gallery, however, is open and maintains the same days and hours as the restaurant.
From the restaurant, travel along the island trail south past the railway bridge for isolated parkland and views of the river. On the riverbank, Chatou itself remains a small, turn-of-the- century suburban village, popular with photographers for its charming neighborhoods and 19th-century walled gardens. INFORMATION:
Maison Fournaise, Ile de Chatou, telephone 011-33-1-30-71-41-91.
French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, 1-900-420-2003 (50 cents a minute).
-- Peter Mikelbank