Susan Vreeland's latest novel, the story behind Renoir's great masterpiece, Luncheon of the Boating Party, is another winning read. The painting depicts fourteen people enjoying a convivial lunch on a summer Sunday along the Seine. Narrated by Auguste and several of his models, the novel centers on the joys and hardships that come with undertaking such a massive painting.
It is 1880, and Auguste Renoir has a dream of painting a scene that depicts la vie moderne, a new era in Paris that marks a revival after France's devastating war with Prussia. Auguste is a struggling artist with no money, but people who believe in his talent enough give him art supplies on credit. Once he realizes that he must use the terrace of his friends' restaurant - La Maison Fournaise - as the setting for his painting, he will stop at nothing to see the painting through until the end.
Auguste finds, however, that the painting is more difficult than he anticipated. A moody, demanding model walks out in the middle of posing for him; other models can only make sporadic appearances to pose for him. The dimensions of the painting look wrong to him on several occasions. He only has eight Sundays' worth of good light on which to paint. He is also having a personal crisis that involves disagreements with other painters in the Impressionist group. At times, he feels almost ready to give up on the painting.
Encouraged by the models who are posing for him and by his feelings of love toward two of them, Auguste presses on. In the process, personal details about Auguste's life, and the lives of his models, are revealed. They are all lively, interesting characters whose personalities are brought to life on Auguste's canvas.
Whenever possible, Vreeland based the story on real people and events. The models' names are real, as are La Maison Fournaise and the people who supplied Auguste with his paints and canvas. These details make Luncheon of the Boating Party all the more interesting. Renoir's painting is truly a masterpiece, and Vreeland's novel only serves to enhance it. I enjoyed this novel greatly, and appreciate the painting that much more.