[25 July 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
It must be impossible to look at a painting for which we feel some special delight and not imagine how it was made. Was “American Gothic” meant to be taken seriously or satirically? What memories must the onetime “Blue Boy” have dredged up when, bankrupt, he sold the painting of himself by Gainsborough? And, of course, there’s the eternal question of what Mona Lisa was smiling so enigmatically about.
Susan Vreeland has made a career out of such flights of fancy. Her best-selling novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, traced the fortunes of a fictional Vermeer painting from conception to the present day. The Passion of Artemisia was about post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and The Forest Lover was about Canadian artist Emily Carr. Vreeland’s last book, Life Studies, was a mostly clever story collection and preparation for her latest novel: Many of the pieces were looks at impressionists through the eyes of their acquaintances.
Luncheon of the Boating Party is Vreeland’s most ambitious book yet, detailing the production of a single painting through seven points of view. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s most famous work was ripe for fictional treatment. Luncheon, housed at Washington’s Phillips Collection, features 14 models, some famous, some not, with one not even conclusively identifiable. Renoir set out to make a masterpiece in 1880 and succeeded: “Figures, landscape, genre subject—all in one. Throw in a still life too,” as he plans it in Vreeland’s novel.
Impressionism aimed to capture the moment. Vreeland’s novel aims to capture everything that went into making that moment. The painting may portray a group of friends lazily enjoying a summer afternoon on the Seine. But, as Vreeland details, it took weeks of execution, none of them easy. The starving artist sometimes had to choose between paying his models and purchasing paint, all while struggling to assemble his large party on successive Sundays before the summer light disappeared. An old lover forbidden to continue modeling by her possessive fiance threatens to ruin the work entirely: Ever since “The Last Supper,” 13 figures in a painting have been bad luck.
“I make it a rule never to paint except out of pleasure,” Renoir says. But the making of a masterpiece could be anything but.
The painting unfolds through the eyes of Renoir and six models. The painter aimed to capture “la vie moderne, though his conception was different from that of contemporaries such as Zola, of whom Renoir scoffs, “He thinks he portrayed the people of Paris by saying that they smell.” The new leisure of Parisians recovering from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune was also part of modern life, Renoir insisted. He made no apologies for his sometimes sentimental work.
And his models represented all walks of Paris life. The man in the top hat was Charles Ephrussi, a rich art dealer who thought the scene was too vulgar for his wife to appear in, while the girl in the right foreground was a model and sometime prostitute who brought much joie de vivre to the proceedings. Vreeland explores their lives, to uneven effect. The quandary of Jeanne Samary, a famous actress and the former lover, offers a sharp look into the complicated life of women before liberation. But the few chapters from her perspective in the beginning of the book leave the reader wondering when she’ll reappear. Neither do we really get to know Aline, the seamstress who saved the painting and eventually became Renoir’s wife.
Most successful are the sections from the point of view of Alphonsine Fournaise, the daughter of the restaurateur whose terrace is pictured. (She’s leaning on the railing.) Vreeland draws a moving portrait of a war widow whose involvement in art inspired the courage to make a life of her own. Renoir’s a little bit in love with her, as he is with every woman he paints. The sensuality of Renoir’s work is made clear in an astonishing passage near the end of the novel that, though it merely describes the artist making brush strokes, seems far too risque to reprint here. (It begins, “With the brush loaded and juicy _”)
Vreeland can be just as striking writing an entire paragraph on a raspberry. Though at times her writing feels a bit stilted, trying to capture the speech of a wide variety of people from a century ago, it can also reach transcendence. She has an uncanny ability to communicate the glories of art, whether she’s putting real excitement into the first brush stroke or pointing out, quite naturally, tiny details in the painting that even frequent viewers of it might have missed.
Her delightful novel ends with such joy that it makes you forget its faults. Vreeland forces upon us, through sheer will, her belief in the life-transforming power of art. She succeeds in making us see a painting—and the world—through a painter’s eyes. And couldn’t we all stand to see the world more like a life-affirming Renoir?