The Phillips Collection in Washington is an assemblage of masterpieces of modern art. It has great paintings by Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, and on and on -- you name the modern master and they most likely have pictures by him, often famous ones. But the most famous of them all is Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1880-1881), that icon of impressionism, that glorious picture of a happy group of people gathered to eat, drink and be merry on a sunny afternoon.
There are many reasons for its appeal. But first among them may well be that it seems at once remote and far away, immediate and welcoming. We know that this scene belongs to a distant past, when time was slower and the world was simpler. But still, this cluster of 14 figures finishing up a meal and taking their ease on a restaurant terrace beside the Seine looks so relaxed, so natural and unceremonious, that we feel as if we could walk right in, sit down at the table, pour ourselves a glass of wine, strike up a conversation with the pretty girl playing with her dog, and enjoy the breeze from the river.
When Duncan Phillips, founder of the collection, acquired "Luncheon" in 1923, he predicted that people would come from thousands of miles away to see it. In the three-quarters of a century since then, it has been the most popular work in the collection. People not only come from all over the world to see it, it has traveled all over the world to please its admirers -- across this country and to England, France, Germany, Spain, Australia and Japan.
Now it has become the star of its own exhibit, "Impressionists on the Seine," a seductively beautiful show that all who love impressionism (and who doesn't) will have to see. It consists of 60 paintings by Renoir and his contemporaries -- Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot and Caillebotte -- subtitled "A Celebration of Renoir's 'Luncheon of the Boating Party.' "
An apt subtitle, that. The project has its serious, scholarly side, including a catalog with essays on Renoir's development as an artist, on the import of the painting and on the Seine in 19th-century art and life. Nevertheless, the show has a celebratory feeling about it.
It's just the right size, large enough to cover the subject but not so large that it becomes tiring or needlessly repetitious. Its beautiful paintings lead the eye through six galleries to the beloved "Luncheon" itself. Along the way, there is a modicum of didactic material, but not enough to bog down the viewer -- or, for that matter, to explain thoroughly Renoir's development or his interaction with the other painters whose works are gathered here. For that, one must turn to the catalog.
The paintings -- most of them from the 1870s, and more by Monet (23) than anyone else including Renoir (14) -- show the impressionists coming into their own in that decade when they began to show their work as a group. Some of them were especially important to Renoir's development.
As early as 1869, he and Monet had painted together along the Seine near Paris, and had produced views of the bathing resort La Grenouillere, both included here and notable for their stylistic similarity. In her catalog essay, Phillips curator Eliza E. Rathbone states that these and the two artists' other paintings of the time "are widely thought to mark the beginning of a truly Impressionist style in their apparent spontaneity of brushstroke, their attention to outdoor effects of light, shadow and reflection, and their brilliant broken touches of color."
Although Renoir and Monet would paint together again along the Seine in 1873 and 1874, they would never be so close in style and subject matter. Monet would continue to paint landscapes, those in this show notable for their dazzling colors, their play of light and their variety of brushstroke. Renoir, on the other hand, became increasingly a figure painter and developed the feathery brushstroke that makes his works so instantly recognizable.
In becoming primarily a figure painter, Renoir responded to several influences. One was that of Manet, also pre-eminently a figure painter, whose "Boating" (1874) is the most striking painting in the Phillips show. Indeed, its central figure looks out at us with a stare less defiant but almost as challenging as that of the woman in his famous painting "Olympia" (1863).
In a more general way, as Rathbone notes, Manet was an inspiration to Renoir and all the impressionists in his "courage in confronting the academic criteria of excellence and in following Baudelaire's exhortation to paint la vie moderne in an unquestionably bold and original style."
Renoir's friend, the painter and rich collector Gustave Caille-botte, may have influenced Renoir with his figures in such paintings as "Oarsmen" (1877), in which the figure closest to us almost seems to leap out into our space.