Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's most famous works. It's also one of the most well-known depictions of an alfresco lunch outing in art history. Set in a Paris cafe overlooking the Seine, the painting captures a joyous moment among friends. But the history around this iconic Impressionist work makes it all the richer.
1. IT BREAKS FROM EARLY IMPRESSIONIST INTERESTS.
In the early days of the Impressionist movement, city scenes were one of the dominant themes. By 1881, when Renoir finished the masterpiece, Impressionism was moving into new terrain, specifically the suburbs. The scene captured in Luncheon of the Boating Party takes place roughly a 30-minute train ride from the hubbub of Paris.
2. IT SHOWED A NEW APPRECIATION FOR DIMENSION AND DEFINITION.
About four years before creating Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir painted a similarly ambitious scene set in Paris, Dance at Le moulin de la Galette. As with Luncheon of the Boating Party, the painting is set in a social setting on a sunny day, offering an intimate peek into the lives of French people. However, the open brushwork in this 1876 piece gives Dance a flatness that is rejected in Luncheon. Luncheon's more defined borders and greater attention to contouring gives its subjects an almost 3D appearance.
3. IT IS ONE OF RENOIR'S LARGEST PAINTINGS.
Luncheon of the Boating Party measures in at 51 by 68 inches.
4. ITS INSPIRATION WAS A POPULAR FRENCH HANGOUT.
The Maison Fournaise of Chatou overlooks the Seine River and was an adored destination for diners across class lines. As depicted in Luncheon of the Boating Party, businessmen, socialites, seamstresses, and artists were all frequent customers of this restaurant. Renoir had a fascination with the place, frequently painting there and recruiting models from its pretty patrons.
5. THE RESTAURANT CAN BE STILL BE VISITED TODAY.
Maison Fournaise shuttered in 1906. But its historical importance inspired the people of Chatou to spearhead a restoration project in 1990 that brought the restaurant back to its former glory. It also now boasts a museum and a craft shop that celebrate its Impressionist heritage.
6. THE PAINTING IS A PORTRAIT OF RENOIR'S DEAREST FRIENDS.
He called them to the Maison Fournaise to pose in person, perfecting each portrait one by one. Far at the back, in a top hat, sits noted art collector and historian Charles Ephrussi. He is speaking with poet Jules Laforgue. To the right, Renoir's pals Eugène Pierre Lestringuez and Paul Lhote are presented flirting with renowned actress Jeanne Samary. Meanwhile, Renoir's affluent patron and fellow painter Gustave Caillebotte sits in the lower right corner, conversing with actress Angèle Legault and Italian journalist Adrien Maggiolo.
7. THE GIRL WITH THE PUPPY BECAME RENOIR'S WIFE AND RECURRING MODEL.
Seamstress by day and muse by night, Aline Charigot carried on a passionate romance with the Impressionist painter. The two had a child named Pierre in 1885 and officially wed in 1890. In the course of their relationship, Renoir repeatedly returned to capturing her beauty with works like Boating Couple, Madame Renoir With a Dog, and Motherhood.
8. THE FOURNAISE FAMILY IS WELL-REPRESENTED.
Alphonse Fournaise opened the pictured restaurant in 1860. Twenty years later, its grandeur would be captured along with his children, all of which were named for him. The lady draped over the terrace railing is Alphonsine Fournaise. Her brother Alphonse Fournaise, Jr. can be spotted leaning against that same rail in the lower left corner.
9. A NOTED BON VIVANT MAKES A SLY APPEARANCE IN THE WORK.
In the painting, former mayor of colonial Saigon Baron Raoul Barbier—pictured wearing a bowler with his back to the viewer—flirts with Miss Fournaise.
10. THE WOMAN WITH THE GLASS IS A RENOWNED ACTRESS AND MODEL.
Ellen Andrée stands out at the center of the painting. She is in the midst of a crowd yet isolated, talking to no one. The French actress is best remembered as a model for Impressionist masters, having appeared in Luncheon of the Boating Party, Édouard Manet's The Plum and Edgar Degas's controversial L'Absinthe. Her pose in the first also inspired a pivotal scene in the acclaimed 2001 French film Amelie.
11. LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY HIGHLIGHTS A SHIFT IN FRENCH SOCIETY.
This mingling of men and women from different walks of life reflected how the divisions of class in French culture were dissolving to create the new bourgeoisie.
12. IT WAS CELEBRATED UPON ITS PREMIERE.
Luncheon of the Boating Party debuted in 1882 at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition, where three critics singled it out as the best piece in the show. Paul de Charry wrote in Le Pays, "It is fresh and free without being too bawdy," while Armand Silvestre declared it "one of the best things [Renoir] has painted…It is one of the most beautiful pieces that this insurrectionist art by Independent artist has produced."
13. AN ARDENT FAN BROUGHT THE FRENCH MASTERPIECE TO AMERICA.
For decades, Luncheon of the Boating Party was part of the private collection of Renoir patron Paul Durand-Ruel. But following his death in 1922, Durand-Ruel's sons put the piece up for sale. It was quickly acquired by American art collector Duncan Phillips for $125,000. As founder of Washington D.C.'s The Phillips Collection—America's first museum of modern art—Phillips made it his mission to bring the evolving form to the United States. And he considered Luncheon of the Boating Party not just one of the gems of his collection but "one of the greatest paintings in the world."
14. SOME CREDIT THIS PIECE FOR PHILLIPS'S DEVOTION TO MODERN ART.
In the wake of the deaths of his brother and father within a year of each other, Phillips attended an exhibition in New York City where he spotted Luncheon of the Boating Party. It moved him so profoundly that he became obsessed. He sailed to France to secure its purchase, and spent his entire year's art-buying budget on this one work.
Legend has it that fellow collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes once said to Phillips, "That's the only Renoir you have, isn't it?" Phillips replied, "It's the only one I need.”
15. A HOLLYWOOD TOUGH GUY FANTASIZED ABOUT STEALING IT.
During Hollywood's Golden Age, actor Edward G. Robinson was best known for playing gangsters in movies like Key Largo (1948) and Little Caesar (1931). Off screen, he was a passionate art enthusiast, who famously said, "For over thirty years I made periodic visits to Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party in a Washington museum, and stood before that magnificent masterpiece hour after hour, day after day, plotting ways to steal it."