Flea Market Renoir

Alphonsine Fournaise in a detail from
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81. French. Oil on canvas. 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923

According to the Washington Post, a Virginia woman found a Renoir, Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, in a box of knickknacks she bought in a West Virginia flea market for $7. The best part? The painting was once owned by Alphonsine Fournaise–she who flirtatiously leans against the railing in our Luncheon of the Boating Party. The lucky bargain hunter is having the painting auctioned off, and plans to use the money for house repairs and to take her mother on a trip to France.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

The Pain Passes but the Beauty Remains

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Judgement of Paris, circa 1908. Black, red, and white chalk on off-white, medium-weight, medium-texture paper, 19 1/4 x 24 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1940.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Judgement of Paris, circa 1908. Black, red, and white chalk on off-white, medium-weight, medium-texture paper, 19 1/4 x 24 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1940.

Having worked at the Phillips for over a year, I couldn’t even begin to list all of the questions I get asked about Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Most visitors are curious about what is quite possibly the most famous painting in our collection, Luncheon of the Boating Party. I personally prefer his smaller chalk study, The Judgement of Paris, that currently hangs in a nearby gallery, because it demonstrates just how talented and determined Renoir was as an artist.

You would never know by looking at the works he produced from 1892 until his death in 1919, but Renoir suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis for those last three decades or so of his life. His hands were deformed, his joints severely damaged, and he was wheelchair-bound for most of his later years. He adapted his painting techniques to cope: his children or other assistants held his palettes, placed paintbrushes in his permanently curled fingers, and even moved his canvases underneath his paintbrush so that he could hold his arm still to reduce the pain.

And yet Renoir continued to produce masterpieces. The Musée d’Orsay‘s famous version of The Bathers was completed just before his death, the Phillips’s chalk drawing is from around 1908, and a small bronze also in our collection is from 1916. It is astonishing to think that these amazing pieces were created by a man who was in constant pain and often essentially paralyzed. Jean Renoir, the artist’s son, wrote that “visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity. Though they did not dare to mention it, their reaction would be expressed by some such phrase as ‘It isn’t possible! With hands like that, how can he paint those pictures? There’s some mystery somewhere.’”

The video below was filmed in 1915, just four years before Renoir’s death, and shows the painter and his assistants at work in his studio in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Around this time, a young Matisse asked Renoir why he still painted when it was obvious just how much he suffered. Renoir answered thus: “The pain passes but the beauty remains.”

Katherine Luer, Museum Assistant

Lunch with the Boating Party

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881, Oil on canvas. 51 ¼ x 69 1/8 inches. Acquired 1923. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

I recently tagged along with a group of local 10th graders and museum visitors on a Spotlight Tour of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party led by education intern Meagan Estep. She gave us a few minutes to study the piece in silence but this didn’t last long as sounds seem to emanate from the painting itself. The magic of Renoir’s famous work, and perhaps one reason for its popularity, lies in its ability to transport the viewer to the balcony of the Maison Fournaise for a leisurely dejéuner. Whereas painted scenes often give viewers only voyeuristic enjoyment, framing portals to far-off worlds, Luncheon of the Boating Party invites you in and lets you partake in some afternoon carousing by the Seine. It’s not hard to start feeling the summer sun or a friendly Ça va? on the tip of your tongue.

The first question Meagan asked us was, “What’s going on?” I felt like a 10th grade newcomer, getting an introduction to the complex social groupings of the cafeteria at lunch, as the students commented on one of the most noticeable and interesting aspects of this painting: the realistic and intriguing groupings of people, complete with telling gazes and expressive body language.

These gazes and poses proved not only intriguing, but gossip-worthy, as someone asked, “The woman in the back . . . who’s she really looking at?” Perhaps her dreamy gaze drifts beyond the man opposite her to the handsome guy in the white jacket. Perhaps she’s secretly ogling the studly boater in front. Or maybe those bedroom eyes are just sleepily shutting, as she’s sedated by sun and several glasses of sauvignon blanc.

It’s fun to speculate, especially given that this Boating Party is made up of Renoir’s real-life friends, including his girlfriend who plays with a puppy at lower left, and the restaurant owner’s children. There’s a story to be learned here, and more importantly, a story to be continued, as this scene is hardly complete without the engagement of the viewer, who’s readily welcomed for a leisurely lunch.

Amanda Hickok, Marketing Intern