Ever since my very first exposure to it in 1979 as part of a Smithsonian Institution art-history seminar, one of my favorite art venues in Washington, DC, has been the venerable Phillips Collection, a few blocks east and perhaps a block south of the DuPont Circle DC Metro stop.
There are many reasons for my respect and enthusiasm for “the Phillips,” but certainly one of the most salient reasons for my “evangelical” work on behalf of the Collection is that the Phillips houses Pierre Auguste Renoir’s great Luncheon of the Boating Party (hereafter Luncheon). (I refuse to call it, as some critics do, Boatman’s Lunch. Computers are expensive and I would rather not throw up on mine.) Aside from the sheer beauty of the painting itself, I enjoy watching others’ reaction as they, no doubt in many cases for the first time, walk into the gallery that displays it, all to itself on one wall. Almost invariably – and I’m tempted to remove the “Almost” qualifier, since I can recall no exceptions – the patron, often not realizing that Luncheon hangs there, walks into the gallery, turns, and, often with hand to mouth, softly gasps “Aahhh!” I was no exception: the first time I saw Renoir’s great work, I gasped, too. Over the years, in looking again and again and again and again at Luncheon, and reflecting on my and others’ tendency to stare wide-eyed and gasping, I have come to some conclusions about why Luncheon elicits such uniform awe, and what those reasons tell us about the genius of Renoir and about our sensibilities as art enthusiasts.
For the sake of brevity – for similar examples could be adduced over and over from looking at the painting – I will restrict myself to a single minute examination of Renoir’s work. Take a moment and look at one small segment of the painting. (You may have to copy one of the images of Luncheon in this “Skeptic’s” column to your hard drive and stretch the image until the relevant corner of the painting is large enough to follow what ensues.) Look carefully in the “southwestern” corner of Luncheon and observe the young woman with the red-flowered hat playing with the little black dog. Look more closely. In particular, look at the eye of the little black dog. Closer still: observe that the eye of the little black dog is highlighted with a single speck of white. After years of visiting the Phillips, viewing the painting, and viewing others’ reactions thereto, I have concluded that, while there are many keys to the spell Luncheon casts over us, one of the most salient keys is that single speck of white in the little dog’s eye. (Remember, now, I am concentrating, not generalizing. To repeat: there are other keys to Luncheon and the reason for its effect on us, of which that single speck of white is only one, though I would argue one of the most important.) Anyway, consider the following counterfactual / hypothetical.
Just for the helluvit, try to reimagine Luncheon precisely as it is – but with that single speck of white gone. What would the effect be? Without that single, minute speck of white, the little dog’s eye loses its three-dimension-ality. The dog’s eye becomes just a flat, two-dimensional circle. But with that speck of white, the dog’s eye becomes three-dimensional, at least in the viewer’s iconic imagination, i.e., the dog’s eye becomes a sphere. In fact, with that speck of white, the little dog’s eye becomes … well … the little dog’s eye becomes an eye. A living eye. Without that speck of white, the young woman is basically playing with a stuffed animal, like a very young child. But with that speck of white, she becomes a young woman playing with a living creature. One step farther: I would argue that, without that speck of white, the young woman and her dog could, for all we viewers know, be a department-store mannequin posed to look like a young woman playing with her little dog. But with that minute speck of white – so exquisitely subtle, so eminently over-look-able! – girl-and-dog become two living creatures involved in an intimate transaction of mutual love. That “southwest” corner of Luncheon comes alive.
But the effect is not restricted to that corner of the painting. For reasons of proximity of the figures to one another in the painting if nothing else, that vibrant sense of alive-ness radiates outward to the rest of Luncheon. The whole painting comes alive. I suppose that, in the strictest sense, I lied just now when I said that I would restrict my attention to the speck of white in the eye of the young woman’s dog. But it was a white lie. The reason the life of dog-and-girl radiates outward and breathes life to the rest of Luncheon is because, paradoxical as it may sound in an age that valorizes egocentricity, the other figures in the painting all, without exception, ignore us. There is no suggestion of animosity, not the slightest hint of alienation. We are welcome to observe. But only to observe. Because the other figures in the painting ignore us, they are free to be themselves, to interact as they will. Neither the viewer nor the painting is bound to the other. Neither painting nor patron is beholden to the other. That is why the Luncheon lives. In fact, in a not-altogether-metaphorical sense, Luncheon becomes more than a two-dimensional image. Luncheon of the Boating Party becomes a window, a window onto and into the lives of others – which it could not hope to be, were it bound to us with aesthetic chains. Luncheon of the Boating Party lives.
Which brings up a point on which the work of Renoir, in fact, many Impressionists, has been critiqued: its depiction of an idealized world devoid of tragedy. Has any party of friends having lunch together on a boat ever been as uniformly happy as the group of celebrants in Luncheon? Has any little girl with a watering can ever really been as innocent as the little girl with the watering can in Renoir’s renowned image? As innocent and guileless as the young ballet dancer in Danseuse? I suppose that depends on one’s experience with boating parties and with little girls with watering cans. (For the record: I have personally known a young ballet dancer who, at age 10 or 11, would bid fair to confirm Renoir’s image in all its purity. But that is neither here nor there.) In any case, such critiques presuppose the unqualified value of realism. Leveling such criticisms at Renoir is, I think, in many ways the product of an age and of a civilization, still recovering from two world wars and still subject to nuclear and environmental catastrophe, that is no longer capable of valuing innocence and purity. Renoir had a tragic life. For one thing, severe arthritis crippled his hands when he had years of productive life remaining for his art. The point? Only that to infer from Luncheon and Little Girl with a Watering Can that Renoir was unacquainted with grief and pain is a kind of reverse snobbery that is really unworthy of serious consideration.
Renoir’s purpose, I think, and his achievement, and the reason people still flock to the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, is, not to display the world as it is, as certainly he himself knew it was not, but rather to image forth a vision of something purer, or something better – which we so often, in what I can only call our “naïve cynicism” -- criticize as “unrealistic”. Another way to think of it: Renoir's purpose is a kind of iconography, very much in the tradition of the religious iconography of Byzantine Christianity, which depicted a no-less-idealized world, but with a view to calling the worshipper to something more, something better. Renoir is a 20th-century, secular iconographer of a better reality. For Renoir exemplifies the late Robert F. Kennedy's paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask 'Why not?'" Luncheon of the Boating Party, Little Girl with a Watering Can, Danseuse, et al., are all of the latter tradition.
They ask "Why not?"
James R. Cowles
"Luncheon of the Boating Party" … Pierre Auguste Renoir … Public domain
"Little Girl with a Watering Can" … Pierre Auguste Renoir, photographer: Cliff from Arlington, VA … Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
"Dancer" … Pierre Auguste Renoir … Public domain
"Self-portrait" … Pierre Auguste Renoir … Public domain
Phillips Collection facade … Pedro Layant … CC by 2.0