Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881, oil on canvas, 129.9 x 172.7 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
As we move towards the end of the party season, with awkward work gatherings well underway, this painting captures better than any other the complexities of the social event. Renoir was the key figure in French Impressionism, and his ability to infuse his brushwork with light and life and movement still amazes, even though we’ve had our senses dulled by his presence on a million postcards, calendars and gift-shop bags. His subjects especially reward concentration – each face in this picture is full of character and personality. It is one of those paintings which easily sheds its historical costume – it will always work whether we wear straw boaters or not. This is one reason the painting features in the French love story Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. Amélie’s neighbor ‘The Glass Man’ has painted a painstaking copy of this picture every year for twenty years, finding something new in the subjects each time – something about these figures is timeless.
Amélie herself is fascinated by the girl with the glass of water in the centre of the painting, who carries a detached, mournful expression – both revealing and difficult to read: ‘She is in the middle, yet she is outside’. Amélie reads into this the story of her own life – on the fringes of the worlds of the people around her. We all feel like the girl with the glass of water from time to time – those lonely moments in rooms full of people are part of the nature of parties.
Amélie’s urge to read herself into the figure of the outsider reminded me of a scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the spirit of which I’m aiming to recreate on a rare afternoon off next week. The three truants in the movie go to the Art Institute in Chicago and, while Ferris kisses his girlfriend, his friend Cameron – always the bittersweet centre of the film – recognizes himself in the figure of the little girl in Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The sad strains of The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’, as played on a 1980s Yamaha keyboard, complete the feelings of loss and that thwarted desire for something which make John Hughes’ coming-of-age films so powerful.
Something about this reading of ourselves into art gets to the heart of Renoir’s appeal. John Hughes said of the Seurat scene: ‘And then this picture. I always thought this painting was sort of like making a movie. A pointillist style, which when you’re very very close to it, you don’t have any idea what you’ve made until you step back from it. The closer Cameron looks at the child, the less he sees. Of course, that’s this style of painting. Or any style of painting really. But the more he looks at it, the more there’s nothing there. I think he fears that the more you look at him the less you see. But there isn’t anything there. That’s him.’
That’s what Amélie sees in the Renoir; herself stripped of the life she has surrounded herself with, just as Cameron does. Maybe that’s what we all see in the works of art we love. But parties don’t have to be sad – the pretty girl with the dog in Renoir’s scene? Her name was Aline Charigot, she was a seamstress, and Renoir married her –she turned out to be the love of his life. TH