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The Best of What's Around: "The Luncheon of the Boating Party"
Duncan Phillips, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the French Impressionist masterpiece just across the river from Alexandria.
In 1923, Duncan Phillips, an heir to the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company fortune, acquired Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1881 painting, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, for a museum he founded in 1921 in a Dupont Circle townhouse in Washington, D.C. Phillips paid a dealer who had acquired the painting from Renoir the astounding sum of $125,000 (about $2 million today.) Phillips had pursued the painting for several years for the museum known today as the Phillips Collection which you can explore:
Phillips wrote his treasurer, “The Phillips Memorial Gallery is to be the possessor of one of the greatest paintings in the world … It will do more good in arousing interest and support for [the Phillips Memorial Gallery] than all the rest of our collection put together. Such a picture creates a sensation wherever it goes.” His prediction was correct.
The painting was first shown at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882 when three critics identified it as the best painting in the show. At about four feet wide and six feet tall, the Boating Party is an expansive and majestic work of light, color and action. Almost all of the models—13 in all--in the painting have been identified as friends of Renoir. The girl in the foreground with the dog became Renoir’s wife. A complete account of who’s who in the Boating Party is in a 2017 Art News article that can be seen:
In an era when artworks can seem opaque or obscure, the Boating Party is supremely accessible. When we encounter the Boating Party our view travels clockwise from face to face—some of the faces are fully illuminated and others are partly in shadow. The railing on which two characters lean, and the frame of the sheltering tent, guide the receding visual perspective. Thus, we look into the scene, not just at it.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the dishonest golf pro Jordan Baker says, “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” The 13 figures in the Boating Party are in intimate conversations or individual pursuits—enjoying the weather or cuddling a dog. The painting affirms that relaxation and engagement are not mutually exclusive and celebrates the pleasures of a gathering of friends.
For a large portrait of a large group of people enjoying an outdoor meal there is very little food evident in the Boating Party. Renoir does not portray people eating lunch, but rather shows the enjoyable interval after the food has been consumed and everyone is content to relax and talk.
The Boating Party has fascinated collectors for decades. Edward G. Robinson, the great Hollywood tough guy star (Double Indemnity, Little Caesar, Key Largo and many other movies) and art collector said:
Ah yes, I remember well what it was like to be a true collector, that soft explosion in the heart, that thundering inner ‘yes” when you see something you must have or die. For over thirty years I made periodic visits to Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ in a Washington museum, and stood before that magnificent masterpiece hour after hour, day after day, plotting ways to steal it.
Duncan Phillips’ great collecting rival was Dr. Albert Barnes who avidly collected a large quantity of French Impressionist paintings, including an amazing 181 works by Renoir. These paintings are displayed in the extensive Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. More information about the Barnes Collection is available:
A story involves Dr. Albert Barnes and Duncan Phillips standing in front of the Boating Party when, according to The New York Times, this conversation ensued:
That's the only Renoir you have, isn't it?" asked the redoubtable Dr. Barnes, whose idiosyncratic more-is-more art collection is in the Barnes Foundation. Phillips's reply was succinct: "It's the only one I need.
Another perceptive admirer of the art of painting, a distinguished professor of architectural history, said of the Boating Party, “I like it because I can hear the people talking.”
Just across the river—a short trip by any means—the Boating Party waits for you.
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, 1995.
“Keep Your Big Shows: Low Profile Suits Fine at the Homey Phillips,” The New York Times, April 19, 2000.