I have a confession to make. I was never very interested in paintings or art that wasn't performed. Oh sure, I find paintings and artwork interesting when I am at a museum, but as an interest to pursue on my own time? Not so much. My book club selection Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party as our next read and for those of you with a bit more knowledge of fine art than I will instantly recognize this as a reference to the Renoir painting. Naturally I did not and having missed the meeting when this book was picked, I blithely picked up a copy at the library not knowing what I was getting into. This happens to me all the time with book club.
The description: "Instantly recognizable, Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece depicts a gathering of his real friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine near Paris. A wealthy painter, an art collector, an Italian journalist, a war hero, a celebrated actress, and Renoir’s future wife, among others, share this moment of la vie moderne, a time when social constraints were loosening and Paris was healing after the Franco-Prussian War. Parisians were bursting with a desire for pleasure and a yearning to create something extraordinary out of life. Renoir shared these urges and took on this most challenging project at a time of personal crises in art and love, all the while facing issues of loyalty and the diverging styles that were tearing apart the Impressionist group. Narrated by Renoir and seven of the models and using settings in Paris and on the Seine, Vreeland illuminates the gusto, hedonism, and art of the era. With a gorgeous palette of vibrant, captivating characters, she paints their lives, loves, losses, and triumphs in a brilliant portrait of her own."
This novel did pique my interest in Impressionism, the painters who formed the theory and Renoir (sort of), but it didn't do much more than that. I spent some time googling Renoir and Degas. And then a bit of time looking up Salvador Dali because for some reason I kept picturing 'The Persistence of Memory' whenever I read Degas name. Stop looking at me like that. I already told you Art and Art History were not my thing.
To me this novel read like a supplement to a unit in a high school class. Granted we never spent much time on the Franco-Prussian War and the state of Paris after the war, but if we did I imagine my syllabus might include this novel to provide a flavor of the culture. What I mean is, Susan Vreeland isn't doing anything particularly interesting as a literary author, nor is she providing a compelling new take on the artistic process. In fact, the artistic process here falls flat. Renoir feels inspired to paint. He does. He has some angst as all true artists do. He loves women. Blah, blah. So what? What are you telling me that is new? Nothing. Except that I didn't know much about Impressionism before I read this book and I don't really know much more about it now. And that's the big problem, Vreeland leaves most of the politicis, in-fighting and backstabbing off the table. It's not an intricate study of la vie moderne as it claims to be. It's a methodical account of the time during which Renoir painted 'Luncheon of the Boating Party' and it's sort of told from the perspective of the other models, but I kept forgetting that was a technique until a rare chapter started that didn't sound like we were following around Renoir. Snooze.
I was grateful for the replications of the painting so that I could follow along as figures were added and that made it like a fun puzzle. But I got the same satisfaction from reading about the painting on Wikipedia.
I can't tell you what to read that might do this particular genre/topic better, but if you have recommendations, please tell me. I like having my horizons broadened through literature, this just didn't really do it.