Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion Experience

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s son, Jean, became one of the most important French directors of the 20th century. His now classic film La Grande Illusion follows two French soldiers during the First World War, Captain de Boeldieu and Lieutenant Maréchal, who are captured and imprisoned in a German P.O.W. camp and attempt to escape. The making of La Grande Illusion was “marked by some fortunate circumstances,” explains Nick Macdonald, in his book In Search of La Grande Illusion: A Critical Appreciation of Jean Renoir’s Elusive Masterpiece. One early circumstance that led to the creation of the film stemmed from Renoir’s own experience in the war:

Mid–World War I: (left to right) Georges Rivière, Paul Cézanne, Jr., Jean Renoir; Jean-Pierre and Aline Cézanne in front (ca. 1916) (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library, Department of Special Collections, Jean Renoir Collection).

Mid–World War I: (left to right) Georges Rivière, Paul Cézanne, Jr., Jean Renoir; Jean-Pierre and Aline Cézanne in front (ca. 1916) (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library, Department of Special Collections, Jean Renoir Collection).

“The series of lucky breaks and chance encounters that helped lead to the movie as we know it began twenty years earlier, during World War I. Renoir had enlisted and, in 1916, was assigned to air reconnaissance, like Maréchal. During one mission, his Caudron, an old-style airplane, was attacked by a German Fokker. A French fighter plane shot down the attacking Fokker and saved him; his rescuer turned out to be Captain Armand Pinsard, an acclaimed ace in the French air force.

A champagne dinner at their canteen celebrated the occasion and they became friends. During their time together, Pinsard talked about horses he had trained. They were separated when Renoir’s squadron transferred to another area.

Years later, in 1934, while Renoir was filming Toni in the south of France, planes from a nearby airfield flew overhead, disrupting his sound recording. He went to the base and found that the commanding officer was Pinsard. The planes were rerouted and the two veterans renewed their friendship, dining together often, with Pinsard recounting his wartime adventures, many of which had already been publicized in a 1917 magazine article.

Pinsard had been shot down a number of times and once succeeded in tunneling through a thick prison wall to escape captivity. Renoir made an outline that covered his exploits, “Les Évasions du Colonel Pinsard” (“The Escapes of Colonel Pinsard”), and thought it might be the basis for a good film some day.”

Watch La Grande Illusion at the Phillips on December 14.

In Honor of Ultra Violet

Pantone’s naming of Ultra Violet as the 2018 color of the year seems as good a reason as any to celebrate all things purple from our permanent collection. What are some of your favorite purple works? Here are some of ours:

Stella, Joseph, Vesuvius, ca. 1915-ca. 1920, Watercolor and pencil on paper 9 1/2 x 13 1/4 in.; 24.13 x 33.655 cm. Gift of Jennifer and Alan Pensler in memory of Leslie Pensler, 1997; © 2008 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Augustus Vincent Tack, Time and Timelessness (The Spirit of Creation), between 1943 and 1944. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 85 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1948

Childe Hassam, Mt. Beacon at Newburgh, 1916. Oil on wood panel, 6 3/8 x 9 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Marjorie Phillips, 1985

Philip Guston, Native’s Return, 1957. Oil on canvas, 64 7/8 x 75 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1958


Beneath the Surface of Luncheon of the Boating Party (Part 2)

In order to understand how Pierre-August Renoir created Luncheon of the Boating Party, a technical study was conducted in the conservation studio. By closely examining the surface and comparing it to x-radiographic and infrared images, we learn that Renoir made numerous changes both large and small over several months. While he deftly captured the moment of friends casually enjoying an afternoon at a restaurant on the Seine, the in-depth analyisis shows that he labored to capture the immediacy of the scene.

Explore fresh findings from a recent technical analysis of Luncheon of the Boating Party through this interactive feature

Addition of the Awning
Renoir made a critical modification to the composition by adding an awning across the top edge of the picture. Sweeping textured brushstrokes that do not correspond to the awning’s striped fabric are easily visible in the upper left, showing that the landscape and sky initially dominated the top of Luncheon of the Boating Party. Upon close inspection, we can see that the bridge was initially visible in its entirety, along with a dwelling on the far left. The colors used in the foliage—yellow, blue, orange, green, and white—are discernable beneath the thinly painted fabric. The infrared image (left) also indicates that he shifted the placement of the figure.

Infrared image of Luncheon of the Boating Party

The higher placement of the figure’s hat is seen as a dark shadow above its current position. Sketched lines across his forehead show that Renoir made several adjustments to the format of the hat before settling on its final location.