Lunch and art: The fictional and real

Renoir Boating Party Luncheon

I’m reading Edmund de Waal’s brilliant memoir ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’. Very late, I know. But, better late than never. I’ve had the book for quite a while, a charity shop purchase, but every time I picked it up the picture of the netsuke on the cover put me off. I’m still not sure I actually like the netsuke but, as so often, a good book finds you when you are ready for it.

No doubt any day now – perhaps already – editions will include access to reproductions of the objects being described. But even reading the old style printed paperback all you need to do is google and… there is Renoir’s Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, (The Luncheon of the Boating Party), in front of you, as you read the story within the story:

A red-and-white striped awning protects the party from the glare of the sun. It is after lunch in Renoir’s new world of painter, patrons and actresses, and everyone is a friend. Models smoke, drink and talk amongst the detritus of the empty bottles and the meal left on the table …

The actress Ellen Andrée, in a hat with a flower pinned to it, raises her glass to her lips. Baron Raoul Barbier, a former mayor of colonial Saigon, his brown bowler hat pushed back, talks to the young daughter of the proprietor.

Her brother, straw-hatted like a professional oarsman, stands in the foreground surveying the lunch. Caillebotte, relaxed and fit in a white singlet and boater, sits astride his chair looking at the young seamstress Aline Chaigot, Renoir’s lover and future wife.

The artist Paul Llhote sits with a Proprietorial arm around the actress Jeanne Samary. It is a matrix of smiling conversation and flirtation. And Charles is there. He is the man at the very back, in the top hat and black suit, turning slightly away, seen glancingly. You can just see his red-brown beard. He is talking with a pleasantly open-faced, poorly shaved Laforgue, dressed as a proper poet in a working man’s cap and what could even be a corduroy jacket.

The ‘Charles’ is Charles Ephrussi, cousin of the author’s great-grandfather, art collector and the first owner of the netsuke collection de Waal has inherited. Charles Ephrussi was also a friend of Proust, and part model for the aesthete and dandy Charles Swann.

De Waal draws our attention to this intriguing extract in which Proust’s fictional artist, Elstir, reflects upon the real painting (above), and the real Charles:

A gentleman … wearing a top hat at a boating party where he is clearly out of place, which proved that for Elstir he was not only a regular sitter, but a friend, perhaps a patron.

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