STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This next report takes us to one of the more distinctive museums in a city that's full of them. The Phillips Collection is Washington, D.C.'s most intimate, personal home for paintings. Now, some 60 of its European masterworks by Renoir, Cezanne, and others are back at the Phillips after a four-year absence. They've been on tour while the museum was expanded, reconstructed and refurbished. So, now it's ready for NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

They're so excited over at the Phillips, about the new space and the return of old paintings, that even decorous curators get noisy.

(Soundbite of conversation and laughter)

STAMBERG: They are so excited, they even ask pianist Haskell Small to compose a piece celebrating the return of their most famous painting, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.

(Soundbite of piano)

STAMBERG: The first plan was to send the Phillips painting off to five U.S. museums, but this jewel of a gallery hit problems that people without Renoirs encounter all the time--trying to put in a new sump pump, say--construction delays. The masterworks had to stay on the road.

Registrar Joseph Holbach says, eventually, they went to 11 museums on three continents, and were seen by two million visitors.

Mr. JOSEPH HOLBACH (Chief Registrar, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.): So, it was a story that got better and better, larger and larger (laughs).

STAMBERG: The paintings got raves wherever they went, but Phillips Collection director Jay Gates, says the French were especially glad to have the works back on native soil. Parisians stood on line for hours to see them. When they got inside the exhibition, some wept in delight.

Mr. JAY GATES (Director, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.): Probably, the most touching, was the man who is mayor of Chatou.

STAMBERG: That's the little town on the banks of the Seine River, just west of Paris, where Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party is set. The mayor hosted a dinner at the Maison Fournaise restaurant in Chatou, exactly where the boaters were painted in 1880, having lunch.

Mr. GATES: And talked about how standing in front of the boating party was a dream come true.

STAMBERG: He had never seen it before.

Mr. GATES: He had never seen the original.

STAMBERG: Except in reproduction.

Mr. GATES: That's right.

(Soundbite of piano)

Ms. ELIZA RATHBONE (Chief Curator, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.): It's one of those afternoons, clearly, that looks as though no one wants it to ever end.

STAMBERG: Eliza Rathbone is chief curator at the Phillips.

Ms. RATHBONE: Lunch is over but no one's leaving.

STAMBERG: They'd all come by train from Paris, had their boat ride, their lunch. Now, the attractive young men and women; a painter; a writer; some pretty models and actresses in flowery straw hats; a financier; a little dog, all linger under the terrace's striped awning--talking, flirting, sipping wine. On the white, linen tablecloth: crumpled napkins, half-emptied wine bottles, a few grapes.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. GATES: It's what's left of lunch and the remarkable, sort of, bravura quality--where he has, with the lightest of brushes, simply suggested the quality of glass, which is at once, transparent and reflective--so that the glasses almost seem to disappear except where we see the dregs of wine and the brilliant reflections in white which are the last elements of the composition that are added.

STAMBERG: Just like goopy pieces of white...

Mr. GATES: That's right.

STAMBERG: ...at the bottom of each of the glasses just brings it out.

Mr. GATES: And it reads like icing.

STAMBERG: Fourteen boaters lull after lunch on Renoir's five-and-a-half by four foot canvas. The painting, framed, weighs around 150 pounds--a heavy lunch. Renoir used photographs of the friends he was painting to get their faces right, but the artist launched right into his luncheon with no preliminary sketches--just attacked the big linen canvas with brushwork that darts and dances like sunshine on water.

Ms. RATHBONE: Because it's a very large composition, the figures are just about life-sized, and so, we can imagine ourselves there. It feels like an invitation to join the party.

STAMBERG: I must say, it's the only painting I ever wanted to be in.

Ms. RATHBONE: (Laughs)

STAMBERG: And I think that's no accidental because that's what he does, he aims that table at an angle toward us. So, we could be sitting at the next table.

Phillips director Jay Gates likes thinking about what some of them are doing on that terrace in the sun.

Mr. GATES: We're left in complete mystery as to whether that young lady is covering her ears so as not to hear what's being said.

STAMBERG: Or cupping them (unintelligible).

Mr. GATES: Or cupping them to know exactly what's being said, and to question just whose hand is that slipped around her waist--which would suggest that, at least in French, it's perfectly acceptable to end a painting with a proposition.

STAMBERG: Duncan Phillips, whose family money came from steel and banking, bought the picture in 1923 from Renoir's dealer in Paris. He paid $125,000, a lot of money then but, still!

Another passionate collector of the day, Philadelphian Albert Barnes, bought some 181 Renoirs over the years. Curator Eliza Rathbone says Dr. Barnes paid a call on Duncan Phillips to see his Renoir.

Ms. RATHBONE: Feeling a little bit miffed, he turned, legend has it, to Phillips and said, And is that the only Renoir you have? Whereupon, Phillips, of course, said It's the only one I need.

(Soundbite of piano)

STAMBERG: Collector Duncan Phillips had an impeccable eye for beauty, form, composition, color and now, some of the finest modern art of his time. Works by Matisse, and Picasso, and Bonnard, and Cezanne, and Brach, and Degas, and, and, and--and back home again in the refurbished and enlarged late-19th century mansion Phillips opened to the public in 1921. Of them all, director Jay Gates says Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party serves as a summing-up of that artistic summertime known as French Impressionism.

Mr. GATES: As a monument to the movement, what's the choice of subject? Lunch, with friends, on Saturday.

(Soundbite of piano)

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Even if you can't make it to the museum, you can still attend the boating party at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of piano)

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