The event we see — a convivial gathering on a shaded terrace — most likely never happened, but at least the people were real. Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” the best-loved trophy painting in the Phillips Collection, documents friends, admirers and patrons of the artist but mixes them up in an invented scene, chatting, laughing, flirting and daydreaming, caught in a moment of perpetual youth and gaiety.
The 1880-1881 painting, one of Renoir’s most ambitious, was purchased in 1923 by the museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, for the then-astronomical price of $125,000. It is now the centerpiece of an exhibition, “Renoir and Friends,” that examines its creation, its place in Renoir’s larger body of work, and its subject matter — the alliances, dalliances and friendships of the artist’s social circle.
Many of the details have been documented for more than a century. The luncheon is set on the terrace of a popular restaurant, the Maison Fournaise, a riverside establishment on the Seine outside Paris that was popular with the boating crowd. An annotated photograph of the painting made around 1891 found in the collection of Renoir’s art dealer identified most of the central figures in the work, which shows men and women gathered around a table strewn with linen and glassware and the remains of a meal. Some 14 figures are visible, and most of these have been identified with confidence. These include Aline Charigot, the woman who would become the artist’s wife; Gustave Caillebotte, a painter and close friend of Renoir; and Alphonse Fournaise Jr., a member of the family that owned the restaurant.
Others in the gathering are less-confidently identified, in some cases because their faces are obscured. Only a sliver of profile, tucked in between other figures, can be seen at the center right of the grouping, but a thin little mustache suggests it belongs to George Riviere, a young government worker who wrote about art in his spare time and was lavish in his praise of Renoir. Although nothing of his face can be seen, a tall man in a top hat is almost certainly Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy critic and collector who was another key Renoir ally.
Although the exhibition is centered on the Phillips Collection treasure, most of the works are borrowed from other public and private collections, which makes this far more than an in-house celebration of an already well-known work. Indeed, Washingtonians and others familiar with the Phillips Collection will probably find themselves spending more time with works by Caillebotte and Manet, as well as other visiting Renoirs. Among these is the Musee d’Orsay’s lovely “Danse a la Campaign,” another of the artist’s most significant paintings. A haunting view of the Seine, empty of people but full of dark green grass and a brooding sky captured in reflection on the water’s surface, is among the highlights of the Caillebotte works on view.
Renoir’s “Luncheon” is almost enough to make his critics admire him. The longer you study it, the more contrived and masterful this seemingly fleeting moment becomes. The social vectors that connect the figures in the painting are complex and multilayered, keeping the eye in constant motion across the surface of the work. Why has Caillebotte withdrawn his attention from the gathering, to stare off to the river? Why does the young man with a striped coat box in the young woman next to Caillebotte? What designs does Ephrussi have on the young man with whom he speaks in the background of the work?
And, of course, why do all the women look like Aline Charigot, with bright red lips and a cheerfully stupid look on her wide, open face? This is the curious and fatal flaw of so much of Renoir’s painting, his reflexive return to a single feminine type, which suggests a blindness to half the population that is almost certainly a symptom of some ingrained misogyny. It’s a relief to discover his 1880 portrait of Therese Ephrussi, a relative of Charles, who actually looks like a female member of the species, sensitive, intelligent and distinct from the Renoir Kewpie-doll type. It’s maddening, too, to realize he could see women apart from his ingrained ideal, if he made the effort.
Aline, it turns out, is a bit of an interloper in the “Luncheon” canvas. Technical study of the painting has shown Renoir originally painted another model in her place, then painted Aline over the first woman. Traces of that can still be seen, as can other changes to the painting, including tweaks to the Ephrussi character and his interlocutor. All of which confirms this as a much-labored masterpiece, a painting Renoir struggled with for months and over which he exerted maximum control.
The results were Renoir at his best, or worst, depending on your feelings about the painter. Heroic striving on the painter’s part yielded exactly the superficiality he was aiming for, a bibulous moment of fun among a gathering of good looking, high-spirited young people. One imagines the conversation was dreadful.
Renoir and Friends: Luncheon of the Boating Party is on view at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 7. For more information, visit phillipscollection.org.