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