Published in Elephant August 17, 2021
I was small enough to be picked up to see the painting, held comfortably in my father’s arms. It was a good print, in a good frame, hanging on the wall in my grandmother’s dining room. It is the first artwork I can remember really being aware of, and I loved it.
The painting was Luncheon of the Boating Party, painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in 1881. Although I’m not sure I would’ve absorbed any of those details, not sure I would’ve understood the words “luncheon” or “boating party”.
I do remember my dad explaining (presumably later on) what an Impressionist was, and that he and his mother liked them. How they captured the world in soft, flurrying marks. The radical way they used the colours they actually saw in nature, not just the ones they expected to see.
I decided I liked the Impressionists too. I would look through my grandmother’s big books of their work, deciding loftily which I cared for. I was encouraged in this, was bought paints of my own and was taken to galleries on holidays.
The massive, abstracting late Monets at the Royal Academy blew my mind when I was 13, and I copied Cezanne’s apples and pears for coursework at secondary school. But it was always Luncheon of the Boating Party that I loved most. At some point, my parents gave me a mini print of it for the wall of my childhood bedroom.
This painting bristles with life. It tells a story. In fact, it tells many, and I think that’s what first entranced me as a child. I loved books, and illustrated books especially, but here was a picture so delicately detailed that you could work out your own story within it. It didn’t seem static or posed or fixed. Instead, it was full of people interacting and in conversation. I remember my dad teaching me to look at all the different eyelines in the painting.
If you follow the gaze of these characters, it reveals more crosswired desires than an episode of Love Island. Men woo women, who are amused, or overwhelmed, or disdainful. One man tries to engage a woman clearly more interested in another man, who in turn gazes into the distance. Another woman is just interested in her dog.
Even if, as a little kid, I was oblivious as to the exact nature of many of the desires shooting between Renoir’s subjects, I was still transfixed by them. Who will they choose? What are they talking about, or daydreaming about? Is a small dog, in fact, the best company a woman can get?
Following their eyelines was always where I started. But I can’t remember when it was, exactly, that I realised no-one in the picture is getting what they want (except maybe the lady with the dog). For what looks like a jolly occasion (all those glinting, pretty bottles and fruit, that filigree, flickering lace and river-water!) there is also a certain weariness. Frustration prickles through the scene.
Renoir captures the tingling possibilities of intimate conversation, but also how we often merely strain for connection. He captures how we all (but especially women) politely listen to a lot of crap at parties. There’s as much detachment here as there is flirting.
As you can probably tell, I haven’t got bored of this painting yet. I still can’t pin it all down. Unfortunately, nor could that male character who appeared in Amelie, the 2001 French rom-com. Do you remember that scene in the film? The lonely old painter in the same apartment building as the also-lonely Amelie repaints Luncheon of the Boating Party every year, but can never get the woman with the glass right. His role (and the film as a whole) preaches a message about the value of human connection, but I’m not sure this painting is a great advertisement for it.
The inclusion of Renoir’s painting in that movie helped ruin my relationship with it. Don’t get me wrong, when Amelie first came out in 2001 I adored it, as probably all shy artsy teenagers did. And I enjoyed the delicious shock that someone else loved my painting too.
That soon curdled into something like embarrassment, though. I had the creeping sense that my favourite painting was deeply, woefully uncool.
When my grandmother died, I inherited her beautifully framed painting. But although it was one of the nicest objects I owned, I didn’t want to have Luncheon on my wall. People might think that I had found it through Amelie, and was so twee and unoriginal that I had deliberately aped the most twee-as-fuck film in existence. In case, more generally, people thought I had bad taste.
Because it wasn’t just Amelie, it was also Monet who was becoming popular: his hazy Water Lilies sprouted everywhere, on magnets and brollies and literal chocolate boxes. The Impressionists’ soft-focus style became overexposed and increasingly unfashionable. Something that, well, your gran liked.
I lugged that painting from house-share to house-share, mostly keeping it behind wardrobes. If I already doubted that it reflected who I wanted to be, my various housemates confirmed this. Shared spaces boasted retro book and movie posters, slowly acquiring frames rather than blue-tack. Then there were exhibition posters or prints of artists that broadly fell under abstraction, modernism, or maybe expressionism. Certainly not ballet dancers, waterlilies, or luncheons. My Renoir painting was all wrong.
Taste is a strange thing. Something we feel so strongly about at one time in our life can later register as the ultimate cringe, with our own previous earnest enjoyment adding to the sense of shame at getting-it-wrong. It’s common to return to once-beloved artworks and feel bewildered by the hold they had over us.
But I’ve realised that the opposite can also happen. Getting older, moving into my mid-thirties, has actually produced another shift in matters of taste. Put simply: I care less. Being “cool”, or clinging to some “correct” set of social signifiers, seems less important, less fraught. Of course, it was always uncool to be seen to care about being cool, but that doesn’t mean that snooty, tribal judgement and attendant self-censorship wasn’t taking place.
Besides, I have my set of long-established friends, and they love me even if they think Renoir sucks. And don’t get me wrong: I know nearly everyone thinks Renoir sucks. In fact, there’s a whole Instagram account Renoir_sucks_at_painting where millennials take aghast selfies in front of his work. Renoir does not get cool retrospectives. Goddamn Donald Trump is a fan.
I don’t care. I just put Luncheon of the Boating Party on the wall again. Maybe I’m just getting soppier as I age. Maybe it’s really a reflection of the fact that I’ve bought an actual house, meaning there’s space for multiple versions of me on the walls: the me that loves Impressionists, but also the me that loves Lee Miller and Claude Cahun, Frank Bowling and Lee Krasner, theatre posters and Tenniel illustrations. No single work has to encapsulate the totality of who I am anymore.
But fundamentally, I think I just like this painting. I like its people and its stories. And I like that it reminds me of my own people: my grandmother, my dad, and my own unknowing, instinctive younger self, who had no concept of being cool.