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The Happiest Picture Ever Painted?

August 5, 2016

Most people have heard of the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Impressionist painter famous for painting naked women in flickering sunlight. Monet and Renoir are the most famous Impressionists, but lately Renoir’s reputation has taken a hit, with emphasis on many of the terrible pictures he painted in his later years when his hands were crippled with arthritis and he was hampered by an overabundance of geriatric sentimentality. Many of his late paintings fail at auction and others are refused places on museum walls by curators and art directors. Yet Renoir managed to create some of the most magical paintings ever.


The artist’s Luncheon of the Boating Party has been called one of the happiest pictures ever painted, and it’s easy to see why. Painted in 1880-81, the canvas is a tour-de-force, a masterpiece of light and color brought forth by remarkable brushwork, an example of a master working at the peak of his abilities.


Renoir seems to have composed this complex scene without any compositional studies or sketches. He was known to lug large canvases through the streets of Paris so he could work on location. The recent invention of oil paint in tubes made it easier to work outside the studio. The bravura brushstrokes give the impression of being quickly painted, yet Renoir made changes to his painting over many months.




Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party


Luncheon of the Boating Party was purchased in 1923 by Duncan Phillips, and it’s the most popular painting in The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. The painting brilliantly captures an idyllic moment as Renoir’s friends share conversation and food on a balcony overlooking the Seine at a restaurant near Paris, a spot popular with working people eager to boat on the Seine and escape the heat and crowds during Paris’ hot summers. Instead of showing aristocrats and well-heeled individuals decked out in finery, Renoir peopled his composition with folks he knew: writers, critics, seamstresses, shop girls and businessmen. The attractive young woman playing with a dog on the left side of the composition later married the artist.


Paris society was changing and a vibrant middle class was starting to emerge, a segment of society with money in its pockets and the ability to appreciate being the subjects of art. Paintings like The Luncheon of the Boating Party were not commissioned; artists were beginning to rely on galleries catering to average people although Renoir, unlike fellow Impressionists who shunned the practice, did make a reputation for himself painting portraits of the wealthy.


When I visited Washington D.C. several years ago I was determined to see this painting, which I’d enjoyed in art books. Loving paintings from afar can prove disappointing when confronted with the genuine item. Works I’ve loved in art books have struck me as mediocre in person, and paintings I’d dismissed have made my heart race while standing before them.  


This painting did not disappoint. It was a blisteringly hot day when I entered the collection and walked into the room where The Luncheon of the Boating Party hung. Immediately, I entered into the luscious company of young people at the height of their attractiveness. I felt like I could hear glasses tinkling and taste the lush grapes on the table. And I could feel the river-scented breeze that would ruffle the red and white awning as long as the colors endure.


I’m not surprised that noted actor and art collector Edward G. Robinson is on record saying: “For over thirty years I made periodic visits to Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party in a Washington museum, and stood before that magnificent masterpiece hour after hour, day after day, plotting ways to steal it."
















I can’t recall seeing a happier painting, one I’d gladly step into were it a portal to another place and time. Have you ever seen a happier painting?




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Thanks for the art lesson, and yeah, the painting definitely makes me wish I could be at that party. I have a book of Edward G. Robinson's art collection ... apparently he was a pretty knowlegable collector.
By: Tom Sightings on August 5, 2016
This is a stunningly beautiful piece of art. The lighting is incredible. I've learned in taking pictures, the light is EVERYTHING. You work with it, or it works against you. It's that simple. R
By: Rick Watson on August 5, 2016
Yes, I have been there twice to see it and it touched me each time like a light spring breeze with the smell of flowers. It is one of my favorites!!
By: Tabor on August 5, 2016
It's very vivid. Unusual sense of depth.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on August 5, 2016
Beautiful. It would be nice to join that group for a fun afternoon.
By: messymimi on August 5, 2016
It's exquisite!!
By: fishducky on August 5, 2016
I've never seen this painting, but now I would like to do so. If I've seen a happier painting, I don't know what it could be (this one is a hell of a lot more cheerful than Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters). I've seen some paintings that I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stare at Frida Kahlo's wedding portrait of herself and Diego Rivera for the rest of my life. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on August 5, 2016
By: cranky on August 5, 2016
at one time, i had a picture puzzle of it. i enjoyed putting those faces together. nice to know the story behind it.
By: TexWisGirl on August 5, 2016
Not a fan of Impressionism, but even I want to have lunch with the boating party.
By: Val on August 5, 2016
Well in my limited experience I do agree with you that the happiness comes out in this picture.
By: red Kline on August 5, 2016
That's a great painting. I hope they didn't have to stand around posing for that.
By: PT Dilloway on August 5, 2016
When I saw the happiness of those people, I couldn't help but think of the coming horror of WWI. Crap. I just depressed myself.
By: Al Penwasser on August 5, 2016
I definitely felt a little happier looking at the picture. I also think your words helped as well. Thanks for sharing, Stephen.
By: Mr. Shife on August 5, 2016
It is a happy painting, indeed. I can almost hear the humming and laughter of the conversation!
By: Pixel Peeper on August 5, 2016
I love this painting and consider it one of the best works during this era. It really is a scene of a carefree moment in these peoples' lives and I also wish I were there. You know they are a lot more fun than the aristocrats. The use of colour just captures so much as well. I had no idea that Renoir's later works are not popular and what a shame that the art world can be so fickle. I wish they would put more of his works out rather than some of the modern crap they call profound. I saw a stencilled word in blue..the word "blue" in the middle of a white canvas...big whoop di do.
By: Birgit on August 5, 2016
It is a happy vibe. I've seen it a few times and always think of what a grand party that would have been. I love your "art history" posts. They are are delight.
By: Tom Cochrun on August 5, 2016
Looks like an idyllic lunch party! I am envious. As for paintings disappointing in real life, I remember my disappointment on seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. If it hadn't been for the ropes keeping people at bay and the small crowd clustering around in an otherwise empty gallery I could easily have walked past without a second glance :(
By: Botanist on August 5, 2016
I never cared for art history when I had to take it but you make learning about these painting interesting.
By: Ellen Abbott on August 6, 2016
It is quite the happy scene. I am always in awe of artists of this brilliant...When I can see past the brush strokes and the painting becomes real it is fascinating to me This painting is fabulous.
By: on August 6, 2016
Yes, it takes me right back to similar times in my youth when life was uncomplicated. Now I want to see it in person. I did not know that about Renoir's later years. How sad the decline with aging is for the well known either artist, entertainer or athlete.
By: Arkansas Patti on August 6, 2016
I dunno, that dog looks pretty spooked to me. I can't say I like the painting that much but I can see it's very well painted.
By: LL Cool Joe on August 7, 2016
I don't think I have seen this, but now I want to go see it. I've not been in the National Gallery in decades--although I have been at the MET and Chicago Art Museum more recently.
By: Sage on August 7, 2016
I think this is a wonderful painting, and very vibrant and happy, as you describe... My first thought though, it looked like she was going to kiss the dog, like my Auntie does! I would love to see one or two paintings, but I know the travel will pretty much eliminate the chance. I will have to enjoy books and comments by a certain chatty gent... Cat
By: Cat on August 7, 2016
Another of his works (The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette) has similar attributes. Link:
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 7, 2016
I love this painting for its color, light, composition...and playfulness. It is full of people smiling and gazing fondly at someone who in turn is looking away at a third person. So I don't know whether Renoir is playing a trick on them, or on us, or just celebrating life.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on August 8, 2016
fabulous painting- happy people and I love those close ups of his brush strokes- I want to be in that painting also!
By: Kathe W. on August 12, 2016

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