Luncheon of the Boating Party (Vreeland)

Luncheon of the Boating Party
Susan Vreeland, 2007
Penguin Group USA
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143113522

Instantly recognizable, Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece depicts a gathering of his real friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a cafe terrace along the Seine near Paris. A wealthy painter, an art collector, an Italian journalist, a war hero, a celebrated actress, and Renoir’s future wife, among others, share this moment of la vie moderne, a time when social constraints were loosening and Paris was healing after the Franco-Prussian War.

Parisians were bursting with a desire for pleasure and a yearning to create something extraordinary out of life. Renoir shared these urges and took on this most challenging project at a time of personal crises in art and love, all the while facing issues of loyalty and the diverging styles that were tearing apart the Impressionist group.

Narrated by Renoir and seven of the models and using settings in Paris and on the Seine, Vreeland illuminates the gusto, hedonism, and art of the era. With a gorgeous palette of vibrant, captivating characters, she paints their lives, loves, losses, and triumphs in a brilliant portrait of her own. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 20, 1946
Where—Racine, Wisconsin, USA
Death—August 23, 2017
Where—San Diego, California
Education—San Diego State University
Awards—Inkwell Grand Prize, Fiction, 1999; San Diego Book Awards' Theodore Geisel Award and Best Novel of the Year, 2002.

Susan Vreeland's short fiction has appeared in journals such as The New England Review, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx, Manoa, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her first novel, What Love Sees, was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. Ms. Vreeland is the recipient of several awards, including a Women's National Book Association First Place Award in Short Fiction (1991) and a First Place in Short Fiction from New Voices (1993). Inkwell Magazine for her short story, "Gifts". She teaches English literature, creative writing, and art in San Diego public schools, where she has taught since 1969. (From the publisher.)

"When I was nine, my great-grandfather, a landscape painter, taught me to mix colors," Susan Vreeland recalls in an interview on her publisher's web site. "With his strong hand surrounding my small one, he guided the brush until a calla lily appeared as if by magic on a page of textured watercolor paper. How many girls throughout history would have longed to be taught that, but had to do washing and mending instead?"

As a grown woman, Vreeland found her own magical way of translating her vision of the world into art. While teaching high school English in the 1980s, she began to write, publishing magazine articles, short stories, and her first novel, What Love Sees. In 1996, Vreeland was diagnosed with lymphoma, which forced her to take time off from teaching—time she spent undergoing medical treatment and writing stories about a fictional Vermeer painting.

Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal," she later wrote. In Vreeland's case, her goal "was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and know that in my last months I was happy—because I was creating."

Vreeland recovered from her illness and wove her stories into a novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The book was a national bestseller, praised by the New York Times as "intelligent, searching and unusual" and by Kirkus Reviews as "extraordinarily skilled historical fiction: deft, perceptive, full of learning, deeply moving." Its interrelated stories move backward in time, creating what Marion Lignana Rosenberg in Salon called "a kind of Chinese box unfolding from the contemporary hiding-place of a painting attributed to Vermeer all the way back to the moment the work was conceived."

Vreeland's next novel, The Passion of Artemisia, was based on the life of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, often regarded as the first woman to hold a significant place in the history of European art. "Forthright and imaginative, Vreeland's deft recreation ably showcases art and life," noted Publishers Weekly.

Love for the visual arts, especially painting, continues to fire Vreeland's literary imagination. Her new novel, The Forest Lover, is a fictional exploration of the life of the 20th-century Canadian artist Emily Carr. She has also written a series of art-related short stories. For Vreeland, art provides inspiration for living as well as for literature. As she put it in an autobiographical essay, "I hope that by writing art-related fiction, I might bring readers who may not recognize the enriching and uplifting power of art to the realization that it can serve them as it has so richly served me."

• Two other novels relating to Vermeer were published within a year of Girl in Hyacinth Blue: The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.

• Vreeland taught high school English and ceramics for 30 years before retiring to become a full-time writer. She lived in San Diego, California, and died in 2017. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Vreeland takes the big bold brush strokes of Renoir's personal and artistic oeuvre and displays them with her usual vividness in this eponymous novel.... Sensual and provocative.
Baltimore Sun

Exquisitely wrought.... This summer's most satisfying historical novel.
Seattle Times

Imagining the banks of the Seine in the thick of la vie moderne, Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) tracks Auguste Renoir as he conceives, plans and paints the 1880 masterpiece that gives her vivid fourth novel its title. Renoir, then 39, pays the rent on his Montmartre garret by painting "overbred society women in their fussy parlors," but, goaded by negative criticism from Emile Zola, he dreams of doing a breakout work. On July 20, the daughter of a resort innkeeper close to Paris suggests that Auguste paint from the restaurant's terrace. The party of 13 subjects Renoir puts together (with difficulty) eventually spends several Sundays drinking and flirting under the spell of the painter's brush. Renoir, who declares, "I only want to paint women I love," falls desperately for his newest models, while trying to win his last subject back from her rich fiance. But Auguste and his friends only have two months to catch the light he wants and fend off charges that he and his fellow Impressionists see the world "through rose-colored glasses." Vreeland achieves a detailed and surprising group portrait, individualized and immediate.
Publishers Weekly

Here, Vreeland uses words to paint the changing world of late 19th-century France. After being stung by remarks in an essay written by French novelist Émile Zola concerning the inadequacies of Impressionism, Pierre-Auguste Renoir is goaded to paint a masterpiece surpassing his Montmartre spectacle Bal au Moulin de la Galette, which will finally establish this school as heir to the artistic traditions of France and Italy. He uses models, allowing the listener to experience la vie moderne, the new modes of living, thinking, and expressing that transformed the social world of the late 19th century into the one we inhabit today. Alphonsine, daughter of the proprietor of La Maison Fournaise, and Angèle, a debauched child of Montmartre, are naturals. The beautiful yet spoiled Circe, fobbed off on Renoir by a jaded Parisian socialite, provokes a crisis when she quits midstream, refusing to be painted in profile. Renoir finds her replacement in Aline, a 19-year-old seamstress he will one day marry. Other models add their own piquancy. Karen White brings a cadenced elegance to her reading that is set off by her irreverent over-the-top voicing of the snobby Circe and the naïve innocence of Aline. Recommended for libraries with a commitment to historical fiction and books about art.
David Fauacheux - Library Journal

Critics agree that the concept (tracing Renoir's steps back from this joyous painting) and the research (combining facts not only about Renoir's inner circle but also details about French café society, culture, and painting techniques) demonstrate considerable skill and dedication.... Despite this perhaps overabundance of historical material, Luncheon succeeds as a portrait of both a man and an era.

(Starred review.) Once again—to the delight of her legion of fans—the best-selling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999) and The Passion of Artemesia (2002) imaginatively uses art history as the basis for a carefully constructed historical novel.... [R]iveting, complex novel. —Brad Hooper

Discussion Questions
1. How do you think Renoir’s humble beginnings affected his life and his painting?

2. Describe what you think was going through Renoir’s mind as he took on the technical challenge of this painting. Was he ready for this? How was he to achieve the perspective? Position the figures? Anchor the terrace? Convey the river below?

3. Besides Renoir, how do other characters explore the issue of creative expression? In whom is this yearning most deeply felt? What effect does the gathering of these people have on each other? While reading this book, could you imagine being a model in the painting? What would it have been like for you? Elaborate on how you would have fit in or not.

4. Discuss the level of commitment each character had to the painting. How did their involvement affect the painting? Do you relate to any one of the characters in the painting Luncheon of the Boating Party?

5. How do the separate models’ plots act upon the progress of the painting and enlighten a single common theme? Which of the male models is your favorite? And of the female models? Why does each hold a place in your affections?

6. How did the fact that there was time pressure to finish the painting affect its result? Would the painting have turned out differently if Renoir had had more time to work on it?

7. Renoir seems to fall in love over and over again with the two things he most adored: the female form and the riverscape. He saw one woman as color, another as line. Was there something about the season in which he was painting and his relationships with Aline and Alphonsine that contributed to the overall effect of the image?

8. Why did Renoir hate the term “Impressionist” so much?

9. What does Luncheon of the Boating Party suggest about finding oneself in life and in love? Is there something unique about the way an artist finds his or her way?

10. In what ways, if any, did the novel surprise you? How do you react to a novel that incorporates real and well-known people as characters? Did anything in the novel affect the way you had previously thought about Renoir? Impressionism? French culture?

11. What in the story of this painting gives you a fresh perspective on understanding and developing the relationships and creative inclinations in your own life?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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