Susan Vreeland

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Susan VreelandSusan Vreeland
Luncheon of the Boating Party 

It’s 1880. He’s broke, but Pierre-Auguste Renoir turns his back on the wealthy society patrons whose portraits might secure both his fortune and his reputation. Instead he hatches an ambitious plan to paint a group scene at La Maison Fournaise, his favorite riverside restaurant.

Susan Vreeland’s vivid historical novel walks us step by step through the creation of this masterpiece. We follow Renoir as he arranges to commandeer the restaurant’s terrace on subsequent weekends, goes into debt over tubes of Prussian blue, and rounds up his friends to pose. It’s late summer, and the exact quality of light he wants to capture is waning. He’s got to work fast.

Oh, and his painting arm was recently broken.

The finished canvas radiates joy. All that Renoir cherishes most is there: savory food and good wine; laughter and camaraderie; beautiful women; and that dappled warmth bathing everything.

The backstories Vreeland skillfully interweaves make for a fascinating read. Jeanne Samary, Renoir’s former lover, ceases to pose when her new husband forbids it. Another model causes trouble by acting the prima donna (“quelle peste!”); Renoir scrapes off her image and replaces it with that of a young seamstress he has recently met and coaxed to sit for him. Fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte dresses as a boatman for his appearance.

Alphonse Fournaise, lounging against the deck rail in his undershirt, finds the position difficult to maintain over time: It starts to hurt his back. And that rosy-cheeked lass in the foreground, wholly absorbed in the puppy she plays with, will go on to become Madame Renoir.

Vreeland’s attention to historical accuracy is matched only by her gift for breathing life into the characters. And nowhere is Renoir’s love for his craft and his subjects more evident than in this intimate summertime idyll.

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