Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party

Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81, oil on canvas, 130.2 x 175.6 cm (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and we’re looking at one of Renoir’s largest paintings. This is the “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] This dates to 1880-1881, so we’re now about seven years or so after the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. Sometimes we think about this as moving into the later period for Renoir.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] Renoir is stepping away, certainly, from the earliest Impressionist interest in the city. We are in the suburbs, about a half-hour train ride from the city of Paris, at a restaurant which you could approach by boat, so this is literally a boating party that has stopped for lunch.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] If you think about Renoir’s earlier work, like “The Moulin de la Galette,” that is a scene of leisure, but in the city, painted in a very different way. “The Moulin de la Galette” has very open brushwork. It’s very difficult to find the edges or the contours of forms. Here, we have forms that seem much more three-dimensional, where the forms really do have contours. There’s a real sense of mass to the figures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] You can see that especially in the bare arms of the two men that are close to the foreground. That’s actually the son of the proprietor of this restaurant. The other man in a straw hat, that’s the artist Caillebotte, who is one of the great Impressionist painters, who focused on both the city and the suburbs. He himself loved the boats and was an active rower.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] We’re looking at a group of pretty well-to-do city people who have come to go boating and are now taking a break and having lunch with their friends.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] These are friends of the artist. In fact, the young woman who’s playing with that cute little dog in the lower left corner is Renoir’s girlfriend.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] Aline.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] Who he will eventually marry.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] We have a sense of sociability, of flirting, of delicious food and wine, of enjoying a pipe, of enjoying a lovely summer’s day, of the breeze, of the water, of the outdoors. Life is good, and that’s not an uncommon feeling that one gets from looking at Renoir paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] Look at the way that the figures lean around each other, lean back, lean forward, and are steadied by each other. There’s a wonderful weight and counterweight throughout this painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:15] And glancing and counter-glancing. The male figure in the upper right in that striped jacket who leans forward looks down at this young woman, but she looks at the man across the table from her, and he looks at the young woman playing with the dog.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] This painting is wildly colorful and against all of these rich greens and blues and the whites of the tablecloth really shimmer in the light of the day. Look at the way he’s played that brilliant orange across the surface. It’s sometimes a ribbon, it’s sometimes flowers in the hat, but it’s more than just the colors.

[2:48] I can hear the china. I can hear the clinking of the glasses. I can hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] The laughter of the figures.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] It is a painting that is absolutely alive.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] This is a large painting. Probably largely painted out-of-doors, with more than a dozen figures, many of whom Renoir knew, who had to sit for him outside so he could capture that sense of outdoor light.

[3:11] We think it was probably completed in the studio. When artists paint out-of-doors, a smaller painting is usually preferable and easier to deal with.

Dr. Zucker: [3:20] Painting outside is difficult. You have the same breeze. You have light changing. It’s not a controllable environment. But it is that gentle chaos that makes this painting so pleasurable, so much fun.

[3:32] I think that’s beautifully picked up in the way that the masts of the sailboats are tilted this way and that. Look at the edging of the awning, and the way that the wind has pulled some of those little lobes in towards us and some out away from us. There is constant and gentle movement and change.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] We can see that movement back and forth in the figure in the front who leans back toward us and pokes his elbow into our space. Opposite him the figure leans back on his arm.

[4:02] What I sense throughout all of this is Renoir’s interest in the three-dimensionality of the figures. We’re losing the flatness that was created by those very choppy brushstrokes in “The Moulin de la Galette.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:15] It’s interesting, because that increasing sense of solidity, especially in the figures, but much less in the things around the figures. The glasses are still constructed only out of glints of light, out of bits of shadow.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] That light and shadow is touches of white paint and touches of purple and blue paint.

Dr. Zucker: [4:36] We still see the same kind of handling that we saw in “Moulin de la Galette” from almost a decade before.

Dr. Harris: [4:42] We see that, too, in the background, where we have this sketchy greenery around the river that we see in the background with the boats in it. There is this new concern for figures and a construction of a composition.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] Right. The composition is a little bit more studied. There’s a pyramidal structure. If you follow the railing from the lower left towards the center of the painting, you have one side of that pyramid.

[5:06] Then, if you follow the hand of the woman in blue, past her shoulder, you get the other edge of that pyramid. It really does recall the kind of classicism that harks back to a Renaissance painting.

Dr. Harris: [5:18] We have a sense of the creation of an illusion of space, something that was not important in the beginnings of Impressionism. That railing acts like an orthogonal that creates space.

Dr. Zucker: [5:29] The other issue is that we have no direct sunlight on these figures, except perhaps the figures at the very edge, like the woman who’s leaning over the railing, where you can see perhaps a little bit of direct sun on her hat, maybe on her hand, because all the other figures are safely tucked under this beautiful awning, which is creating this emphasis on the pinks and the blues. It’s enriching this internal atmosphere, even though they’re outside.

Dr. Harris: [5:55] It’s really a modern utopia that Renoir’s created for us.

Dr. Zucker: [5:59] It is this new bourgeois utopia that the French had achieved, at least for a particular class.

[6:04] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party," in Smarthistory, November 12, 2015, accessed June 13, 2024,