Art is one of those oddly subjective things. Everyone looks at it quite literally and where one person can find extreme beauty and emotion, another will just shrug and go eh. That's both the curse and the joy of art, that everyone certainly has an opinion on it, and it's more likely than not that everyone is going to disagree about something about it. One of the greatest disagreements about art, and how it was created occured in Paris, in the last half of the nineteenth century. and it would change painting forever.
One of those rebellious artists is the protagonist of this novel, Auguste Renoir. He's struggling to make ends meet, always in debt it seems, to the supplier of his canvas and paints, to Camille who runs the eatery where he takes many of his meals, to his friends. Obligations are all around him, and he fights to keep himself going, always looking for inspiration. He is part of the artistic revolution known as the Impressionists, that broke away from the rigid Academic style and the critics of the Salon and took the heretical notion that art could be of the instant and didn't need to be executed in a staged, realistic fashion.
Now it looks as though the Impressionist movement is starting to break up -- two major factions have formed, with Edgar Degas and his followers saying that art needs to show the seedier side of reality, and others trying to stay with the original ideas. Some have died in the terrible days of the Franco-Prussian War and the Communard that followed afterwards, and even after a decade, the scars are still there in a slowly recovering Paris.
A popular way of escaping is to go out to one of the suburbs on the Seine, and go boating. Here, nearly all classes are equal, with the stuffy bourgoisie clinging to their frock coats and top hats, workers and artisans alike down to their undershirts and taking to the water to enjoy a summer's day. A restaurant has sprung up on a small island, and it is here that Renoir comes up with his idea of a grand canvas to get him the recognition -- and fortune -- that he craves from the Salon.
The problem is -- how is he going to get his funds, his models and his supplies all together? Some people he has already decided on, from his friend, Gustave the collector, Alphonse and Alphonsine who work in the restaurant, Angele the bawdy and Antonio the journalist, all of them vibrant and alive, but Auguste is after more. He assembles his models, luring them with the promise of excellent lunches and fees on Sundays on the Seine.
But, not everything is going too well. One model refuses to sit still, and creates continual chaos in her wake, another is locked in a tenuous relationship with her lover over the question of marriage, others get tangled up in outside problems, and soon enough, it looks as though the painting is never going to get finished in time before the summer light runs out.
Vreeland creates a vibrant world here that is alive with colour and humour. But to balance that she's wise enough to include some of the darker side of reality -- poverty is a real fear, the treatment of women, illiteracy, and the memories of a city that was nearly destroyed and is only starting to really recover. Her ability to create characters that have distinct voices and styles is very evident here, and I felt as though I was an eavesdropper throughout, and enjoying myself every step of the way.
Best of all, she goes into some of the internal struggle that everyone who seeks to make a living by using their creativity goes through. Do you go on and paint what you want to, or do you give in to the pressures to sacrifice and give up so that you can keep a roof over your head and food on the table? She explored this problem beautifully, and as someone who has had to go through this, it's spot on.
For anyone who has ever looked at the Impressionist movement and wondered what in the world were they getting at, this is a book to be nibbled and savoured. There are plenty of ideas to take in, moments to laugh over, times to cringe, and quite a few to sigh, and cry out over. In the grand, beautiful vision of Le dejeneur des canontiers, Renoir gives a moment in time, and boldly invites the viewer in, and Vreeland does the same for the reader.
There are two inserts of colour reproductions of Renoir's paintings, mostly of those mentioned in the text, which gives just the right touch to help the reader along, and an author's note at the end takes some of the more unlikely aspects and provides a surprise or two.
Summing up, this is a grand summer read, and worth the effort. By the third chapter I was definately hooked, and did not want this story to end. This novel is going on my keeper shelves, and I suspect in a year or two, I am going to take it down and give it a re-reading. So go on, find a spot to relax, pack up your own dejeneur and enjoy this one. Both artists and nonartists I think will enjoy this one.
Happy recommended, with five bold slashing stars.
Other Susan Vreeland novels include:
Girl in the Hyacinth Dress
The Passion of Artemisia
The Forest Lover
Luncheon of the Boating Party
2007; Viking, PenguinGroupUSA
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