I never think I have finished a nude until I think I could pinch it.
– Pierre Auguste Renoir
“This way, please, Mesdames, Monsieur.” I scoot along behind the maitre d’, who’s moving fast. Vite, vite, step quickly, before the crush of lunchtime crowd separates us and I fail to follow the way to the table – the table – around which Aline, Alphonse, Jeanne and Gustave, plus ten others, once gathered to dazzle the world.
“Alors.” He eventually stops and pivots to present chairs and menus to my parents and me. “Bon appétit,” he says. For a moment we sit breathless and disheveled, like we’ve blown in on the wind and don’t quite know where we are, who we are, what we’re doing, or why. Wow. I manage to snag a thought from the whir of them in my mind. This is the exact table. We are seated at the very restaurant table that figures front and center in Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir’s 1881 painting that today is housed in Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection. Here we are, on the shaded terrace of the Restaurant Fournaise in the town of Chatou, just outside Paris. The river Seine flows sun-starry below and the other lunching parties, more blasé, eat platters of crustaceans, drink coupes of Champagne, and seem less fazed by the fact Pierre-Auguste Renoir – the Renoir – in eight Sunday sittings arranged his friends around a table exactly like ours, placed in this precise spot, and painted them to express, he said, “the goodness of life.” Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, his masterpiece, is a wonderwork expressing richness of form, fluidity of brushstroke and a stunning play of light – all accepted as pure Renoir. As he said: “To my mind a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful and pretty. Yes, pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”
My parents and I revive enough to order a demi-carafe of house wine, and take in our surroundings. Later, I compare them to the painting and am amazed at how little has changed since the 1880s, when Renoir sold his sumptuous representation of la vie modern to Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. In 1923 Durand-Ruel’s son passed the masterwork (for $125,000) to American Duncan Phillips, and Phillips placed it in his personal collection of treasures by van Gogh, Degas, Matisse and other “modern” artists. Today it is valued at millions. And here we sit, in a space looking so very like the painting, on the simple terrasse of La Maison Fournaise, a Seine-side boatworks/restaurant with scenic river views that today, more than a century later, still is run by the Fournaise family. Above us is a current version of the all-important gold-striped awning that Renoir, overjoyed, ultimately discovered was just the thing to give his canvas the composition that he, during weeks of feverish work, feared it lacked. Even the wine glasses, once they are plopped before us by a brisk, bustling waiter, refract dancing flecks of sunlight – the very light that dazzles the eye on “our” white-clothed table in the artwork.
“Have you ever felt you are a painting come to life?” My mother, possibly knowing Renoir valued “pleasant,” “cheerful” and “pretty,” re-fastens some flyaway hair and reconfigures her smile – now it’s flashier, more flirty.
“A Renoir even! Except we’re hardly as gorgeous.” I am sitting in the exact spot once occupied by the artist’s future wife, Aline Charigot. I don’t know about in real life, but in the painting she is stunning, sitting nose-to-nose with a wiry, tabletop dog she appears to sweet-talk. Glowing in a flowered hat with a flounce of ruffles at her throat, Aline lends Luncheon of the Boating Party the splendor of a delicate femininity.
“It’s with my brush I make love,” the artist famously said. And I, seated in Mrs. Renoir-to-be’s place, can almost feel her lover’s eyes on our table – on me. Back in the day in a spot just across from us – over there behind the sideboard holding desserts – Renoir set-up his easel. And now in my reverie, beyond the tantalizing Tarte Tatin, the bittersweet chocolate cake, the sugared something swimming in crème Anglaise, I see him tense with concentration, appraising my mother’s coquettish smile, my dad’s blue tattersall shirt, and my…well, let’s be honest: my every feature and flaw. The artist once said that a true work of art required “a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy,” so I fancy in my fantasy that he daubs my particular likeness onto his canvas in way that I, like Aline, become that mystery – a knockout whose looks make world go wow. Renoir also said, “I like a painting which makes me want to stroll in it, if it is a landscape, or to stroke a breast or back, if it is a figure.” In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Aline indeed looks quite the temptress, as does actress Angèle Legault. In the painting she is depicted sitting – at our table – and inclining her comely head to flirt with a man standing over her. Renoir has her fairly shimmering in the lovely light she reflects. Both women ooze youth and beauty. How cool to be transformed just so, to go with a few brushstrokes from ordinary woman to a creature so sparkling or spangling or, I don’t know, blinding that the artist behind the easel is compelled to leap up and stroke you on the spot. Again I feel Renoir’s eyes on me. The day is overly warm, a strong sun blazes above, and I’m in a slight sweat beneath the gold-striped awning. So I’m not sure my dewy self is glowing appropriately, would Renoir want to, you know, daub me with his version of lovemaking. I am sure, however, that if my mother can oomph her pretty by posing for Renoir – granted, he’s not here now, but the familiarity of the scene makes it feel as if he could be – then I best flatter my own figure to make a more favorable impression. I un-slump, sit tall, and tilt my chin so it doesn’t double.
At Restaurant Fournaise, the food is very French: Rabbit terrine, steak au poivre. For a vegetarian like moi, this means limited ordering options. Unless. Well, unless an entire cheese course, plus bread and dessert, can count as lunch. When can’t they! My parents both order the gratin of salmon poached in Champagne and I, a salad and an exquisite selection of France’s best fromage. We all gaze upon the Seine. This sunny Sunday sees boaters boating to and fro. Rowing sculls; sailing skiffs; sloops and yachts and yawls – all form a lunchtime show I suspect is not that unchanged, these centuries later, from that which gave Renoir the characters for his painting. The scene the work depicts is said by the artist to be his “happiest:” French canotiers in classic flat-topped straw boaters join women in flouncy frocks and festive hats for feasting, flirting, and a day of repose on the Seine. In the painting the luncheon table – ours – is made sensually decadent with bottles of wine and a centerpiece spilling fat fruit. The women are rendered red-lipped, plump-cheeked, and kissable. The men, with the exception of a background gentleman in a formal top hat, another in a bowler, look to be just off the river; their undershirts are depicted damp with the sweat of their rowing. Renoir’s wealthy patron Gustave Caillebotte also features in the painting. In the right foreground he appears as a boatman bursting with well-being, sitting backward on his chair like the wine is gone and, oh la la, hasn’t lunch been fun! Caillebotte, an Impressionist artist in his own right, was also an avid, if seriously competitive boatman. Today, one of his sleek racing sculls is on display at the entrance to Restaurant Fournaise. I vividly picture him now in the river below us, row-row-rowing his boat fiercely down the Seine.
“I can’t paint if it doesn’t amuse me,” Renoir once said. The figures of his Luncheon scene certainly exude a mood of relaxed frivolity. All look slightly boozy – well-fed, well-pleasured, content. The party at the table – now ours – must, then, have caused him glee. I wonder: Would the artist have had any jollies over us? As we await our waiter’s return with lunch, here’s Dad, suddenly stricken by an allergy attack. He sneezes, snuffles, fumbles for tissue, and itches his red, weepy eyes. “Forgive me,” he says. “What the hell is growing around here?” Green and wild and gorgeous, the riverbank below our table reminds me that Chatou, though only nine miles northwest of the Eiffel Tower, is not Paris. This morning’s train from the City of Light dropped us here in only 20 minutes, but we are indeed in something of the country. The story is that Renoir loved this city-close escape and his dear friends the Fournaise family.
“There isn’t a lovelier place in all Paris surroundings,” he said. The artist proved his ardor by painting no less than 30 of his most stunning works using Chatou settings. To wit: Portrait of Alphonsine Fournaise (1879), a likeness of the Fournaise daughter who suffered an unrequited love for him, and La Grenoillière (1869), an idyllic scene of a local frog pond. He said: “You could find me anytime at Fournaise’s. There, I was fortunate enough to find as many splendid creatures as I could possibly desire to paint.” Today, many of the pleasures that wooed Renoir remain. No server, for instance, is rushing us to eat and be off. I stand and snap photos of us enjoying ourselves – Renoir’s boating party sat here! – and our fellow diners smile their encouragement. Should we order nothing but a demi-carafe, if that, it appears we are welcome to loll all afternoon at this famous table until we feel as plump with languor and sun as a happy country plum. Might as well. We then will be ripe for Renoir. Splendid creatures, sweet and juicy.
“My purpose in life,” he said, “has always been to paint people as if they were beautiful fruit.”
The waiter at last swoops in with our dishes, and my salad is a composition of leafy loveliness, the cheese plate abundant in classic French favorites – Comté and Cantal and Brie. Eat this with a baguette or two and it’s bonjour to the same good life Renoir’s boating party projects. Oh, joy. While he watches – really, I see him so clearly behind those desserts – I get swoony while communing with some Comté, but then, my personal splendidness takes an unfortunate turn. Sad to say I see a vinaigrette spot, no spots, splattered on my left sweatered breast. Swell. I wet a bit of napkin with spit to rout out the blight and, under his gaze, work away. I wonder: Will Renoir now render my hand, my blush, my breast, and even the spitty napkin in shimmering, sensual splendor?
I mean, it’s not like the friends he recruited to model for his boating party scene knew in advance they would become beautiful ripe fruit in Renoir’s hands. The women, for instance, were former, future or longing-to-be lovers of the artist, and each agreed to pose for him for pay. Word is they all knew full well he preferred to paint them naked. “I look at a nude,” Renoir once said. “There are myriads of tiny tints. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver.” Who wouldn’t want to live and quiver for Renoir! This veritable harem competing for Renoir’s affections off-canvas surely suffered from petty jealousies, perhaps bitter betrayals. Still, Renoir rendered them with a romantic’s eye. In the painting they separately and together are seen only as happy, adoring, in love. Can my vinaigrette breast get the same makeover? Can I, too, woo the artist enough to claim in paint I am a beauty, a seduction?
Not that Impressionism’s colorplay cowboy ever would add me to his stable. “I like women best when they don’t know how to read, “ he once said, “and when they wipe their babies’ bottoms themselves.” Illiterate lovelies were Renoir’s preference – a quirk that hinted at his many passions, however curious. For all his pastel portraits and soft-focus scenes, the tender-hued artist also was no stranger to rage. Renoir lore holds that his happy Luncheon of the Boating Party was conceived as an absolutely incensed response to a slam made in 1880 by writer Emile Zola. Impressionists the likes of Renoir, wrote Zola in an influential journal of the day, “show their works while incomplete, illogical, and exaggerated.” Zola then challenged all of them– Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Cézanne, among them – to man-up and exhibit more complete, more complicated works in the day’s most prestigious salon. Luncheon of the Boating Party was Renoir’s personal up-yours to Zola. A complication of shape, space, color, texture and composition, the painting took six months to complete. In its time if was considered a cutting-edge mélange of still life, landscape, portraiture and genre. A work of pure revenge, it told all the snooty, self-important Salon des Arts members that Monsieur Renoir, for one, would not be labeled, as Zola had sniped, one of a “sloppy self-satisfied group of forerunners, inferior to what they undertake.” He, the great Pierre-Auguste, would paint breasts begging to be felt!
Here on the terrace of Restaurant Fournaise, Renoir needed, he said, “ to feel the excitement of life stirring around me.” Today we may offer him a bit of buzz. My mother stirs half circles in her chair and my dad half-stands in search of the waiter. For all our unbothered lolling at the table, we really are ready for dessert and an after-lunch tour of the small museum attached to the restaurant. There, in the Musée Fournaise, boating life and the 19th c. golden era of the Seine are extolled in gauzy, romanticized river scenes by such painters as Adrien Karbowsky and Maurice Catinat. These artists may lack Renoir’s star power, but still: the diversion is interesting enough that we want our waiter to remember our table – this is, after all, the table – and return one of these days to offer coffee and a little of that thing swimming in crème Anglaise. As it is, his easy, leisurely way of allowing us to linger over lunch feels very Luncheon of the Boating Party. It feels like we’re actual Renoir models asked to sit hour upon hour, forbidden to move a muscle for fear the artist – ever eyeing us – will flub the line of Mom’s sloping nose or botch the tone of my father’s complexion flushed by the sun.
“Paint with joy!” the artist said. “With the same joy that you would make love to a woman.” I consider: Would my billowing American buttocks, which flow well beyond the edges of the bitty French chair on which I sit, purr to him, Paint me, you fool? Renoir did say, “When I paint a woman’s bottom so that I want to touch it, then the painting is finished.” In this context, with Renoir watching, it’s easy to dream that my derriere is a delight, a desire, even a dazzling object d’art, light-refracting and luscious – a derriere he might like! Why, that certainly changes how I see my least favorite feminine asset. I feel his eyes sizing, smiling, deciding: which tint conveys big?
Given this I best sit at some better advantage – cross my legs like a lady, perhaps. The moment I do, a miracle: The waiter at last appears. My parents order the crème brulée and the Tarte Tatin and I choose two boules of chocolate sorbet. Oui, Mesdames, Monsieur. He whisks off and we again are left to wonder how our table – how we – figure into Renoir’s genius.
His lunching boating party drew instant awe when the painting debuted in 1882. “One cannot imagine these women, as they are, having been painted by anybody else,” said French art critic Théodore Duret, a booster of Impressionism at the time. “They have the free and easy manners one would expect of young women who have lunched and are enjoying themselves with a group of young men, but they also have that graciousness, that roguish charm, which Renoir alone could give to women.”
Roguish charm. Is that Renoir will make of my two scoops of sorbet, when one certainly is more gracious and, really, an entire cheese course to myself? But to become a beautiful fruit I must, like the fruits who sat before me, trust the artist. After all, they gathered at this table – our table – on eight subsequent Sundays and let him daub all he wanted, turning their private persons into public personas today eternally famous. Aline, Angèle and the others – these ladies who lunched for Renoir let him love them. In turn his paintbrushes and palette told each one she was lovely. So when coy Angèle cocked her comely head, pretty Aline poufed her lips into a dog-kissing coo, or young Alphonsine projected her starry-eyed gaze, they perhaps had no idea of their power to inspire great art, and, even better, know their own allure. I’d like a little of that. What was it these women did to seduce Renoir’s artistry? That’s right, tilt head to a come hither slant. I can do that. Pouf pout – that, too. I might even be able to go glazy in tragic infatuation, à la young Mademoiselle Fournaise. Her sad passion cries out from Luncheon of the Boating Party. I wonder: will any or all of these efforts to experience my own irresistibility work today to enchant the man whose attention I most wish to attract – our waiter? He is at the far end of the restaurant – as oblivious to our table as Renoir was to the love-struck and mooning Miss Fournaise.
“What are you doing?” My mother regards me with a smile less toothsome than the one she put on for Renoir.
“I said, what are you doing?”
I try to explain. Here is the chance to see myself as Renoir might have – my sweaty complexion made radiant, my billowing buttocks made touchable. What woman wouldn’t revel in modeling for the artist, even nude, when she is assured she’ll be glamorized, idealized, and out and out lit up by the love in his brush? I can’t help but let my head cock, lips coo, and eyes go starry in imitation of his models. I am enraptured by the idea that, on a Renoir canvas, I’d be as intoxicating as any lady of the boating party. Me! A living, quivering goddess of glow and grace whose vinaigrette breast and other flaws will be immortalized and admired, not to mention featured in museums – for centuries. Gorgeous. That’s what I am, in the imaginary eyes of Renoir: gorgeous.
In Luncheon of the Boating Party, a hatted lady in brown is doted on by two devoted looking bearded men. The arm of one clasps her around the waist in what appears to be an affectionate squeeze. Her hands cover her ears for reasons unknown. Perhaps this is some secret signal of women skilled in attracting male attention. I let my hands fly up to mine.
It works. The waiter hurries to our table from the far end of the terrace. He looks perturbed.
“Madame?” he says. “Ça va?” He wants to know if I’m all right. Indeed I am!
“L’addition, s’il vous plait.” I ask for the check and the waiter gives me a what’s the hurry face. But given my coo-lips, starry-eyes, cocked-coy head, and flown-up hands he guesses something means it’s time for us to leave and so returns right away with the check.
I feel Renoir’s eyes on us as my parents and I gather ourselves, stand, and abandon the all-important table to the next luncheon party. We exit via the spot where Renoir’s easel stood. Were it a day exactly like today but in the 1880s, how would his canvas express us, striking a pose for the painter? Dad mid-sneeze, Mom troubleshooting her smile, and I mopping my left breast – would this see its way into the Phillips Collection? “Nowadays they want to explain everything,” Renoir said of art critics in his day. “But if they could explain a picture, it wouldn’t be art.” Honestly, we could be art. We have lunched here, as Renoir’s boating party once lunched. We have admired the Seine as they no doubt admired it. We have enjoyed the day as they surely had. We have shared in Renoir’s vision of the good life and, now…well, now I possess a new respect, even affection for my buttocks, be they ever so billowing. Yesterday I was a mere woman and today, a juicy fruit. Devour me, you fool. Let Renoir have you, in the way I imagined he had me over lunch at Restaurant Fournaise, and any woman, every woman, can see herself anew. Forever transformed by my encounter with the artist, now I can vogue for any camera on cue, confident I’m cute. I mean, Renoir would think so. And as far as his opinion goes, as everyone knows, these days, each one is worth millions.