By: Susan Vreeland
Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: February 26, 2008
Source: my shelves (paperback)
Reason for Reading: June’s bookclub selection. (And it happened to be a title on my TBR list.)
Vreeland endeavors to tell the story behind the creation of Renoir’s famed painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. Renoir gathers a group of friends every Sunday for two months at La Maison Fournaise. The party feasts on the terrace, basking in the afternoon sun. After the meal Renoir paints his friends in the glowing light, relaxed and merry. His task is to create a masterpiece in retaliation of Emile Zola’s stinging critique of the impressionist movement.
There are a few things this book had going in its favor right off the bat. So my enjoyment of this book was perhaps already a bit biased:
-It is set in Paris.
-It is set during the Victorian age.
-It is about art, specifically a painting by an artist that I like well.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, Renoir’s and some of the subjects of his painting. I really enjoyed Renoir’s perspective for his unique outlook as an artist. He saw everything in color and how the colors relate. He was obsessed with light and how it affected the colors. He didn’t just see objects, he saw them as interactions of colors. I’ve always enjoyed Renoir’s paintings; however, reading Vreeland’s well-researched account gave me a new understanding of his work. Being inside his mind with his unique viewpoint on the world around him, his deep commitment to portraying the beauty around him, and his strong opinions.
Vreeland captures the mood and feel of living in Paris during the late nineteenth century. I felt transported to that time. She does a great job of breathing life into the characters that surrounded Renoir and peopled this particular painting. The pace of the book moves similar to the Seine, it can be languid and peaceful, other times it moves more quickly like the current. However, I didn’t mind this as I was so captivated by the setting and events. I soaked up all the descriptions of Victorian Paris.
It was while listening to the other ladies expound their thoughts on the story that I realized how much I truly loved this book. Some of the women were annoyed by Renoir’s fascination with color and the way he described things from this vantage point. It was one of the things I loved most. I loved the perspective of being inside a great painter’s mind for a glimpse at this unique perspective. Knowing that Vreeland did her research, I felt like I was getting a good glimpse indeed and reveled in it. Another sticking point for some of the ladies was the pacing of the book. Some thought it too slow. I read the book in the span of a weekend. I was so taken with the story, the Paris setting, and getting a behind the scenes peek at Renoir and his peers that I didn’t really feel that it was slow. The story wasn’t jammed with action, it felt more like a character study, which I thoroughly enjoy when done well.