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Jul 17, 2009
Review: Luncheon of the Boating Party: A Novel
This book is my second review for the Art History Reading Challenge.
Title: Luncheon of the Boating Party: A Novel
Author: Susan Vreeland
Publisher: Thomson Gale (2007)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Luncheon of the Boating Party is a novel that gives a fictional account of a Renoir painting by the same name. It is set in France in the year 1880 and tells the imagined journey that resulted in the famous painting. The painting features fourteen boaters on a terrace overlooking the Seine, a river near Paris. Renoir attempted (successfully) to capture a spontaneous moment of pleasure that would capture the spirit of the time. Having recently been through a difficult war time period, Parisians were intent of pursuing pleasure and reveling in life. Susan Vreeland tells about Renoir's personal circumstances as well as that of the models who sat for him on Sundays for the two months that it took to complete the painting. This was a very quick time frame for a painting of its large size. This novel depicts an important intersection in the lives of all those involved in the creation of the painting. Each Sunday as they share a meal together and pose for the painting they discuss their thoughts about art and life.
What Susan Vreeland's book does so well is to let the reader get a behind the scenes look at what went into a painting in those days. Renoir was facing pressures and problems from all sides. He had little money and had to ask for assistance from anyone who would help him in order to buy the art supplies, pay the model fees, pay for the feast every Sunday, etc, etc. He also faced pressure to finish the painting in a very short space of time due to the changing of the light that he deemed essential to the summer time scene he wanted to capture. Getting the right number of models with the right look who would commit to the many sittings was also practically impossible. His own physical problems such as a broken arm and arthritic fingers also created difficulties. The most troubling thing for Renoir was the composition of the painting itself. He was worried that it would look like something floating out over the water, rather than a terrace attached to a building.
Luncheon of the Boating Party was a wonderful summer time read because of its setting and subject matter. It portrayed lovely summer Sunday excursions to the river-side as well as sailboat pleasure cruises and races. It tells us what interesting French produce was in season and describes the tempting dishes that were served each Sunday painting session. I enjoyed learning about the impressionist painting techniques as well as the difficulty they faced in being accepted by the art establishment. The insight into the problems faced by Renoir makes the painting all the more amazing. The only negative comments that I have about this novel is to do with the structure being a little difficult to follow. This was probably due to there being so many different stories to tell about the various models. It took me a while to get all the characters set straight in my mind and I found the first half of the book to be a little repetitious and slow to develop.
Interestingly, the writing style of this book was quite different than another Susan Vreeland book I read recently, Girl In Hyacinth Blue. Both styles fitted their subject matter well. The finer, detailed and lyrical style of Girl In Hyacinth Blue was better suited to the style of Vermeer's paintings whereas Luncheon of the Boating Party seemed bolder. Overall, I enjoyed Luncheon of the Boating Party and felt that I learn a lot about art history. Though my favorite of the two was Girl In Hyacinth Blue.