Overview: Renoir's Portraits of Leisure
An overview of Renoir's Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rowers' Lunch) and Woman at the Piano, two paintings that celebrate leisure in 1870s France.

Book: French Impressionists
Brettell, Richard. French Impressionists. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, p. 31.

RENOIR’S PORTRAITS OF LEISURE Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir were the most important figure painters in a movement normally associated with landscape painting. Close colleagues of Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro, they strove, in very different ways, to capture the physiognomy of daily life in urban and suburban Paris during the first years of the Third Republic (1871-1940). While Degas was a prolific experimenter with every artistic medium from photography through print-making to painting, Renoir was preeminently a painter, among the most naturally talented in France during the last third of the nineteenth century. Degas depicted Paris at night; Renoir painted the city by day. Degas was a highly educated bourgeois with a private income and Renoir, of humbler circumstances, worked anxiously for his living, attempting always to disguise working-class origins behind a seemingly effortless and confidently sensual art.

Both Woman at the Piano and The Rowers’ Lunch were among the fifteen paintings sent by Renoir to the second Impressionist exhibition, in 1876. Perhaps because it was so expressive and beautiful, Woman at the Piano had already been sold to a M. Poupin, a business associate of the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Following the lead of Corot, Courbet, and Manet, Renoir had often painted women alone in domestic interiors, either day-dreaming or reading, but never before had he painted a woman playing the piano, a subject that was later to become almost a trademark for the artist.

The comely young model, perhaps Renoir’s wife Aline, plays in a darkened interior. She sits on a newly invented swivel piano seat in front of a beautiful neo-Baroque piano fitted with candles for evening musicales. The room is subtly evoked; one senses a patterned carpet, fabric-covered walls, and luxurious curtains behind the potted plant. The woman herself is lit by daylight from an unseen window and seems utterly unaware of our presence. Thus, she is at once muse and model. Of her music we know nothing, except that she may have selected her score from a picturesque pile on top of the piano. She is not a singer— her mouth is closed, but the melody she plays seems to wind through the black line of her dress, surely one of the most elegant, dancing lines in the history of nineteenth-century art.

The Rowers’ Lunch has long been dated 1879-80 and considered to be an early study for the artist’s monumental picture Luncheon of the Boating Party of 1880-81 (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). Yet, this is surely in error. Renoir made a lengthy visit to the Restaurant Fournaise in Chatou during the summer of 1875, painting both the Art Institute canvas and a portrait of the proprietor of this famous suburban restaurant. He sent the painting shown here to the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, where its delightfully loose paint handling and evocative rendering of form were misunderstood by many critics as slapdash and unfinished. As an image of bourgeois leisure from the classic early years of Impressionism, this small painting has few rivals. Renoir’s brush dances over forms, picking up a flicker of light, slipping into a fold of fabric. Nothing, not even the still-life, is still, and the visual excitement of motion throughout this small canvas almost borders on nervousness. Here, indeed, is a new kind of fete gallante, but this time the revellers are not costumed aristocrats, as they were for Renoir’s eighteenth-century hero Antoine Watteau, but good-natured men and women of the middle class, having a good time on a good day in the country.