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• Friday, January 25th, 2019

Susan Vreeland was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1946 and grew up in North Hollywood before her family moved to San Diego, California where she died in 2017, aged seventy-one, after complications following heart surgery.

Susan Vreeland’s father worked as a production manager in the aircraft industry and her mother, who comes from an artistic family and had a long-standing interest in art, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Vreeland’s mother and grandmother were china painters.

After obtaining a B.A. degree in English from San Diego State University in 1969, Vreeland taught high school English for a while in San Diego. While still working in 1980, she wrote features for newspapers and magazines on subjects related to education, art, travel and cultural topics and in 1988 wrote some fiction. After a thirty-year teaching career, she retired in 2000, dedicating herself full-time to writing.

She said in one of her interviews that: “Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf (in Paris) and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion (…) I couldn’t imagine then, I have been true to this pledge”.

Susan Vreeland is known for combining literature with visual art and fiction in most of her novels. She says: “Entering the mind and heart of painters has taught me to see, and to be more appreciative of the beauties of the visible world. That I can agree with Renoir when he said: “I believe that I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendour”.

Vreeland says it takes her about three years to write a novel. She goes on by saying: “Archival and published history don’t always record personal relationships so characters must be invented to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction. Scenes must also be invented to develop plot and themes (…) otherwise it would be dry facts, dates, numbers, place names, with people and feelings completely left out, but I take care not to change known history or the character of a historical figure”.

“Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, published in 2007, is the title given to the famous painting of the renowned French artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Susan Vreeland kept the same title for her novel since the story is about Renoir and how he achieved his masterpiece. In her book, the author depicts him like the sun surrounded by his satellites.

In the late summer of 1880, the thirty-nine-year-old Renoir invites a group of friends and acquaintances from different backgrounds to model for him. The invitees include the artist, Gustave Caillebotte, actress Angèle Legault, Italian journalist Adrien Maggiollo, the seamstress and Renoir’s future wife Aline Charigot, the restaurant owner’s son and daughter, Alphonse and Alphonsine Fournaise, the Folies Bergère performer Ellen Andrée, the Comédie Française actress Jeanne Samary, art historian Charles Ephrussi and five more.

Thirteen of them come to model for him. However, since the number thirteen was not acceptable around a dinner table (because of Jesus’ last supper with his thirteen disciples and the betrayal leading to the crucifixion), an unknown person was added to make the fourteenth sitter. They are all immortalised in his “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, which will become one of Renoir’s best-known and most favourite paintings and one which will prove, at the time, to be more problematic to paint than he expected.

In stunning authentic details, the painting represents the new Parisian epoch following the traumatic and painful Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. It illustrates “la vie moderne” combined with “la joie de vivre” French style of the time. The scene takes place on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant with a small hotel and boat rental on the north-west side of the river Seine at Chatou, a suburb of Paris, and one of Renoir’s favourite settings for his paintings. The tableau not only depicts fourteen people having a good time over an agreeable summer Sunday lunch but also includes still-life and landscape.

In her novel the author portrays the people in Renoir’s painting in vivid, colourful impressionistic strokes by subtly disclosing their lives a little at a time, following them into cafés, cabarets, artists’ studios, people’s salons, regattas and by even delving into their past. From the way Vreeland animates all the characters in the painting, she demonstrates her genuine admiration for this piece of Renoir’s work of outstanding artistry.

With his impressionist style of art in “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, Renoir was defying Emile Zola, the French writer and art critic for the daily newspaper L’Événement. In his article, Zola criticised the impressionists as being unable to produce a work of outstanding artistry conforming with their allegations.

Impressionist art was launched by a group of artists living in Paris. To become known to the public, these artists had the honour of exhibiting their work at the prestigious and most celebrated annual or biennial art event in the Western world, the “Salon de Paris”, during the eighteen-seventies and eighteen-eighties.

Renoir’s challenge for painting one of his biggest canvases was a risky task. He was limited by the summer light he wanted to catch before it faded into autumn, just a couple of months away, as well as by his general lack of money for modelling expenses, the cost of oil paints and for paying Monsieur Fournaise’s rent for the restaurant’s upper terrace. There was also the additional cost of the eight delightful Sunday lunches and drinks that Renoir was offering his sitters. Nevertheless, people who believed in his art advanced him credit.

Renoir was also challenged a great deal by his temperamental model, Circe, who refused to have him painting her profile and walked out, replaced by Aline Charigot. Other models could not make it every Sunday, one having a duel to settle while another was busy with her acting career. Renoir also had a feud with some of the other impressionists led by the passionate, well-known French painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas.

In one of her interviews, Vreeland explains why she chose Renoir’s “Luncheon Of The Boating Party” as a subject for her novel. She says: “Some part of me came alive in front of this painting the first time I saw it (…) I saw a lovely, enticing range of cultural attitudes to discover. I sensed that a study of this painting would lead me to an exploration that was bound to enrich my life (…) It was, in fact, the French “art de vivre (…) Such a gift from Renoir to the ages! One must clasp hands before it in awe. My novel is my way of living in the painting, learning its lessons of the art of living.”

The author immersed herself in the subject of her book. She read fiction and non-fiction about Renoir, the impressionist era and about the nineteenth century France. She did extensive research including visiting Paris twice, walking where her characters walked. She also learned French during the three years she was writing her novel to be able to read the original French texts concerning the subject of her book. She even had two lunches at the Maison Fournaise, which is still a restaurant and has also become a museum.

“Luncheon Of The Boating Party” is a charming book for art lovers in general and lovers of the painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his painting of the same name, as well as for all interested in the history of Parisian lifestyle in the nineteenth century.

Category: Book Reviews
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