Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard people repeatedly declare that they feel like figures in an Edward Hopper painting. Who can’t relate? The world has surely never experienced so much enforced solitude on such a scale. I’ve thought not just of Hopper, but also Vilhelm Hammershoi, a late-19th-century Dane who painted haunting interiors in shades of gray, emptied of everything except single sitters seen from behind, and Caspar David Friedrich, that master of solitary walkers and pensive window-gazers.
But my wife’s cupcake anxiety (okay, she was mainly joking) made me wonder, too, about how are we all feeling about images of crowds — about pictures of togetherness, conviviality and mingling pheromones?
Most of us have camera rolls filled with party photos, Thanksgiving tables or crowded beach scenes. Now they’re liable to induce sighs, if we can even bear to look at them. But what about their painted equivalents?
Washington is blessed to be home to two of the more famous party paintings in art history. The Phillips Collection has Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” and the National Gallery has Manet’s “Masked Ball at the Opera.” Extroverts both, these canvases are probably feeling forlorn and out of sorts, what with the galleries closed since mid-March. It might be a good time to reach out to them.
The Renoir, one of the world’s most beloved paintings, shows a lively gathering buzzing with bonhomie and fluttering, sun-kissed physical proximity. Oh, my lord, you think now, even just seeing it in reproduction, I could do with a bit of that …
It was painted in 1880-81, 10 years after Paris had endured a trauma like no other — a four-month siege, a government overthrow and a bloody civil war. Good times had returned. The setting for Renoir’s scene is the Restaurant Fournaise on the Seine below the bridge at Chatou, a semirural settlement just 20 minutes by train from central Paris, where Pierre-Auguste Renoir had his studio. Since the railway was built, Chatou and various nearby locales along the river had become immensely popular with Parisians, especially on weekends, when people of all classes came to promenade along the banks, swim, sail or row boats, and indulge in various forms of amorous and/or inebriated leisure.
Guy de Maupassant wrote some great stories set in these places, including “Femme Fatale,” which opens at the Fournaise (fictionalized as Le Grillon). In a sense, though, the locale and wider setting of Renoir’s painting is unimportant. It’s an image that is not just about the good times produced by proximity. It is also about our need for mutual support.
The painting is peppered with Renoir’s friends. Among them are the children of the Fournaise’s owner; Renoir’s future wife and favorite model, Aline Charigot; a fellow artist, Gustave Caillebotte (a boating enthusiast whose financial largesse supported many of his fellow Impressionists); and a well-known collector and art aficionado, Charles Ephrussi (who was written about so movingly in Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare With Amber Eyes”).
Renoir counted on these people. Most of them were better off than he. But they valued what he did as a painter as well as the affable, life-loving, impassioned spirit in which he did it. And they were willing to support him. Renoir honored the rapport they all felt for one another with a painting so good that it transcends the specifics of time and place and speaks to anyone who loves laughter, flirtation, ebullience and optimism.
Édouard Manet’s “Masked Ball at the Opera,” painted seven years earlier, depicts a different kind of crowd and has a very different feeling. From a slightly detached viewpoint, we see a tightly packed group of men in top hats and a number of women of various backgrounds. They’re all attending one of two masked balls held annually at the Paris Opéra on the rue Le Peletier — a building that burned down later that year.
The Manet, painted indoors rather than outdoors, is a small, horizontal canvas, and it’s very much a city picture, in contrast to Renoir’s shade-dappled countryside scene. But it shares more with the Renoir than you might think.
Even though the crowded interior Manet depicts — the promenade behind the boxes — has a slightly sordid, transactional atmosphere (the men appear almost sinister, and some of the women were selling sex), it actually portrays many of Manet’s closest friends and supporters — just like the Renoir.
Art historians are not entirely confident in their attempts to identify the top-hatted figures (it’s a bit like trying to tell cupcakes apart). But we know Manet had his friends come to his studio to pose and that among those who appear in the finished canvas are an art critic (Theodore Duret), a composer (Emmanuel Chabrier) and a collector (Albert Hecht). Manet even painted himself — he’s the man with the blondish beard second from the right.
So although Manet’s painting presents a different kind of party crowd, it is underwritten by some of the same spirit of friendship and mutual support as the Renoir.
It is hard to look at these paintings now, or at earlier crowd masterpieces by the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (“Peasant Wedding Feast”) and Veronese (“The Wedding at Cana”). Full of life and local color, of appetite and eros, of sweat and sweet scents and all the secret pockets of rapport that form unexpectedly between people at concerts, crowded parties, parades and festivals, they remind us of all we are missing, stuck at home as we are in our Hopperesque isolation. It hurts.
But like those photos in our camera rolls of the fancy-dress parties or outdoor concerts we attended last summer, these works of art tease out tendrils in our hearts that will one day — you can count on it — shoot out and intertwine themselves with our real lives again.