Friday, August 6, 2010

Review: Luncheon of the Boating Party

Author: Susan Vreeland
Format: Hardback 420 pgs
Subject: Impressionist art; Auguste Renoir
Setting: Paris 1880
Genre: Historic Fiction
Source: Public Library
Challenge: Book club reads

One of the book clubs I belong to is trying to read a different genre every month, with historic fiction being the genre du mois. I admit, I didn't have much interest when the book was selected, but one of the reasons I like this club is that it expands my horizons. This one was slow getting started, with five different POVs, and about 15 characters to keep track of.  It is essentially the story of how August Renoir came to paint this painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and the people he chose to include in the painting.  Along the way, the reader is treated to French history, art history, culinary scenes guaranteed to make you hungry, art lessons, and an engaging view of la vie moderne.

Book club members had various reactions, several (including moi) found it suffered from a gigantic case of TMI (too much information) and that many of the descriptions --particularly of boating scenes could have been cut out or shortened without destroying the story at all. The lone gentleman in the group felt it presented a demeaning picture of women, in that Renoir is portrayed as unable to paint any woman he doesn't love, and he's only thinking bedding them while he's painting.

There were 14 people in this painting, including Renoir's future wife, and it was hard at the beginning to sort out who was who.  I was able to get a 'map' of the painting from the Phillips Collection website (in Washington DC where the painting now lives).  With that in hand,  I was able to enjoy the author's framework...she tells the story of how impressionism was under attack at the time, how the artists had to resort to various painting endeavors to make enough money to live on, and were always in debt. The lives of boaters, restauranteurs, mimes, seamstresses, actresses are all told as vividly as the painting. 

We also learn how the painting is constructed from the time the canvas is stretched until it is finished.  Included is the story of the beginning of the modern art gallery dealer model we still have today. A definite read for anyone who is Renoir fan.


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