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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

Page Three

By Susan Vreeland © 2007
Published by Penguin Books; paperback,  434 pp
'A novel' appears in fairly small print on the cover of this enjoyable narrative that is a kind of hybrid of fictionalized biography, historical novel, and discourse on painting techniques of the Impressionists. If that description sounds off-putting, don't be misled. If you don't care how Pierre-Auguste Renoir (or anybody else) achieved their effects on canvas, plan to skim. The story is worth it. 

The account of how the eponymous painting came into existence begins with a novelist's ideal "hook" when we meet Renoir on his way to a day in the country near Paris. He paints landscapes only en plein air, so is riding, of all things, a steam cycle. With lyrical descriptions of the Seine and the summer landscape, he and we are transported into the actual circumstances that led to a brilliant work of art and the struggles to produce it that provide all the suspense and romance of a good novel.

The author's notes assure us that she has taken few liberties with the details of the story, and those are mostly for the sake of keeping events in manageable chronology. The central figure in this book is not absolutely identified. It is Renoir, but it is also his art. Like life, there are so many characters and so much variety, a reader is enveloped. Vreeland presents Renoir the painter, but also the man. We meet his friends, his models, his lovers, his supporters and even an enemy or two. At the apex of the structure of the story is the picture itself. 

The cast is large — there are fourteen figures in the finished painting. Vreeland introduces us to every one. We know how and where each one lives, we are shown incidents from each life, and are made privy to the wide social gaps between them. There are other characters who are not models. Perhaps the person who might be called the second lead is the young widow Augustine Fournaise who rescues Renoir from his crash in the beginning of the tale. She serves as a sort of chorus, but with a personal interest in the events.  

Description is one of Vreeland's special talents: every sense is addressed with precision and imagination. Be prepared to be made hungry when you read about the meals served on the terrace; you learn how each of the particular boats in common use were managed. You will also learn not only some color theory, but also much about brushstrokes, perspective, composition, and the internal workings of Renoir's ambitions as an artist as his painting develops. If this were to be made into a movie, shots could be staged with hardly an alteration from the detailed settings and dialogue in scene after scene.

Renoir differed from his famous colleagues in the new art movement in his philosophy of his work. His object was to avoid the seamy, grim, realistic efforts of so many of his painter friends, and depict the joy of life in a relaxed moment peopled with examples of all of French society of the period. This uplifting atmosphere was a life view Renoir thought needed to be made available, while making use of the looser, more emotionally accessible style of the young artists without sacrificing the skills of Ingres and Watteau.

 Vreeland generates extraordinary suspense in spite of the fact that before you open the book, you know the outcome of the central problem. The cover is a print of the finished painting. Unless you already know all the biographical details of Renoir's life, however, you read on if only to discover which woman, if any of them, will be next in his life and how the money will be found to complete the work within the deadline. You have to know whether Augustine will enable him to keep up his spirits, whether he will make the models all appear on time and frequently enough to finish each section at all, if the weather will hold, if he will be able to persuade his supplier to trust him for more paint…and other problems that arise like plot points in a thriller.

Name after famous name is dropped only to add to the interest. When Emile Zola reviews a show and ends by saying in effect that the Impressionists simply haven't the ability to fulfill their ambitions, the challenge is irresistible to Renoir. The drive to produce this particular picture is immediately under way. He has avoided attempting anything so difficult, but decides the time is ripe.

To meet this gauntlet tossed down in print, Renoir knows he must produce not just another good painting, but a masterpiece, and not a small masterpiece, but a large one. He embarks on the most ambitious production of his artistic life. Not only does it contain a large number of people, but the canvas is very big: over four feet by five feet. Just finding fourteen people willing to sit for weeks was almost a source of certain defeat. The challenge presented by perspective and composition so worried the painter that it was almost at the end of the work that he solved the problem.

Degas, Manet, Pissaro, Monet, and others appear not in person, but through discussions of their agreements and disagreements with Renoir. We meet his patrons, his supporters, his mistresses, and are plunged vividly into the atmospheres of fin de siècle Paris from Mont Martre to Rue de Rivoli, from luxurious drawing rooms to seedy cafés, both right and left banks, from the most elegant streets to the most sordid alleys.

The richness of this novel is remarkable. If you're a reader of nonfiction, you'll be treated to biographical, sociological and historical facts, art techniques and theory, and an insider's travelogue; if you're a reader of fiction, prepare to meet demimonde models, aristocrats, and bourgeoisie in their home territories. You will become fully immersed in a setting and time of enormous influence for generations still to come.

Joan L. Cannon

*Renoir, Pierre-Auguste, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81,  The Phillips Collection

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