“What would they become? she wondered. What has he glimpsed in us to lay over that vast white land? Us. Nous. She said the word aloud, dropping off the s, a kind of lowing. The exhilaration she had felt yesterday surged again. She was part of something.” (113)
Luncheon of the Boating Party, Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party was published in 2007 and is 434 pages. I read it on Stephanie Cowell’s recommendation after finishing and loving her novel about Monet, Claude and Camille. What has ensued for me is a new obsession with impressionist art, and another new, favorite author.
At forty, Auguste Renoir still lives the life of a starving artist and bachelor struggling to make a name for himself and to translate his intense passions into sustenance. Frustration from recent art criticism and inspiration from a balcony at La Maison Fournaise become the perfect recipe for his idea–an intense, colorful, vibrant portrayal of his friends on a Sunday, following lunch, relaxing in the warmth of each others’ company: la vie modern.
Vreeland’s cast of characters are the people in the painting. In a detailed, and beautifully written narrative, she depicts Renoir’s difficulties assembling a group of models, finding money to pay them and buy materials, and dealing with his self-doubt, friendships, loves, and losses.
Central to the painting is Alphonsine, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant where the scene takes place. Her quiet encouragement of the painter and his subjects, and her repeated thrill of being a part of something, Nous, run like a gentle current in the book, even reaching out to include the reader.
When I finished Luncheon, I went online and found that the original painting is part of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C., less than an hour from my home. I look forward to the day when I may stand in front of the painting, with Renoir’s work in front of me and Vreeland’s words with me, and feel a part of Nous. Something. A shared moment in time that continues on.
If you love art or historical fiction, I highly recommend this book.