Exhibit Sheds New Light on Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”

More than 130 years after it was completed, “Renoir and Friends” returns to the famed painting

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's famed painting "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is the focus of a new exhibit in Washington, D.C. Pierre-Auguste Renoir / Google Cultural Institute

In Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," he captures what appears to be 14 good friends (and one fluffy dog) chatting amiably while enjoying a daytime meal of wine and good food. But wrangling 14 people for anything is a headache, and documents included in a new exhibition in Washington, D.C., show just what a headache it was for Renoir to bring together the intended subjects of his painting in 1880, writes Brenda Cronin of the Wall Street Journal.

Looking beyond the soft brushstrokes and fine details of the famous scene, the exhibition at the Phillips Collection, "Renoir and Friends," reveals the tangled story of its creation. The artist complains, for instance, about the "impudence" of one woman sitting for the painting next to the affenpinscher​​, whom he ultimately replaces with a model by the name of Aline Charigot (who, conversely, would go on to become Renoir's wife).

To see these changes Renoir made to the famous painting, the Phillips Collection used advanced scientific techniques including X-ray and infrared analysis that shows where the artist painted over sections of his large work. As Washington City Paper's art critic Kriston Capps reports, Renoir had only just reached success as a painter in years leading up to his work on "Luncheon of the Boating Party." As Eliza Rathbone, who helped curate this exhibition, tells Capps, his frustrations with his subjects illustrate a moment where the Impressionist was still doubting and correcting himself heavily. But those changes arguably paid off big—the painting received rave reviews when it debuted in 1882, and continues to be held in renown today.

While the scene depicted in the painting likely never happened, Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post writes that those who sat for the work were by and large friends of the artist, and the exhibition documents how the painting seems to suggest at relations happening among the group. To further that point, the Phillips Collection borrowed works that were purchased by several art collectors depicted in Renoir's tableau, showcasing the tastes that these friends helped impose on the artist.

"Luncheon of the Boating Party" is arguably the Phillips Collection's most well-known (and well-loved) painting, and the exhibition also puts a spotlight on how American industralist Duncan Phillips spent more than a decade to acquire the painting in the first place, ultimately spending a stunning $125,000 to acquire it from Renoir's dealer in Paris in 1923. "Its fame is tremendous and people will travel thousands of miles to our house to see it," Phillips predicted after closing the deal. "Such a picture creates a sensation wherever it goes."

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