Managing The Image of Paris
Luncheon of the Boating Party
Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party,1880
In this painting, Renoir celebrates good company, good food, good wine, and good nature. We are in a place where both nature and human nature are calm and gentle; there’s no room for darkness in Renoir’s sunny world.
The setting is a restaurant on an island in the Seine at Chatou, a few miles outside of Paris (the river is visible in the upper left background). This is the heart of Impressionist leisure-land: not far up-river is the sailing centre of Argenteuil, featured in the paintings of Monet, Manet, and Caillebotte; just downriver is the swimming place of La Grenouillère, where Monet and Renoir inaugurated the Impressionist era in 1869.
Rowing was the main attraction for wealthy Parisians at Chatou, and Renoir’s diners wear the straw hats and blue dresses that were the fashionable boating attire of middle-class Parisian day-trippers. For like many Impressionist paintings, this is a completely middle-class image. It is a scene of the triumphant bourgeoisie celebrating in a place that was once a playground of the aristocracy.
Like the leisure activity it portrays, Renoir’s painting is elaborately conceived and constructed. Both the activity and the image are products of bourgeois society, designed to distract viewers and participants from the mundane realities of life in this new world. There’s plenty of wine left in the bottles, and they’ve saved a place for us at the table. The power of this painting is the power of pleasure. The point is to enjoy it, relax and drink it in.
Renoir’s people are enjoying themselves, but we should not forget that their pleasure depends on suppressing any thoughts of that other life back in the city. A difficult feat, perhaps, given that in the distant background, partly hidden by the restaurant canopy, we can see a railway bridge that crosses the Seine and connects this island with Paris and reality. Needless to say, none of Renoir’s diners are looking toward the bridge. The reality just a decade before, as shown in the image below of the destruction of a bridge on the Seine is a forgotten memory.
Paris in 1871 - The Reality of Chatou
This photograph was taken during the Paris Commune in 1871. Many bridges on the River Seine were destroyed in the conflict between the Communards and the Versailles troops. Rebuilding the damaged structures was a top priority for the government after the defeat of the Commune.