DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In 1880, the artist Renoir wrote a friend that he was in a riverside town near Paris painting oarsman. He'd been itching to do it for a long time. "I'm not getting any younger," the 41-year-old artist wrote, "and didn't want to defer this little festivity."
Well, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says that painting, "Luncheon Of The Boating Party," is the star of a new exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's the only painting I've ever wanted to be in - 14 young people on a sunny balcony overlooking the Seine, having a wonderful town. Lunch is over - half-full wine bottles, golden grapes, pears on the white tablecloth. Now they're relaxing, talking, flirting.
ELIZA RATHBONE: I really don't know any painting in Renoir's work that surpasses "The Boating Party."
STAMBERG: Eliza Rathbone curated this show.
RATHBONE: He's at the height of his powers. Renoir has really been painting in an impressionist style for more than a decade, and he's ready to surpass himself.
STAMBERG: He asked friends to pose for him - pretty models, actresses, the wealthy painter Caillebotte in the sleeveless T-shirt for rowing, a man in a top hat, the guy who owns the restaurant where they're lunching. They probably never posed together.
RATHBONE: I think it was a logistical challenge, bringing 14 people together. We doubt he ever did quite that.
STAMBERG: The Phillipps show explains how Renoir got them all onto his large canvas. Not all his models were cooperative.
RATHBONE: One, he found so impossible, he had to dismiss her from the project.
STAMBERG: And scratched her out and painted somebody over where she had been.
RATHBONE: Exactly, and he...
STAMBERG: X-rays and infrared reveal the 19th-century scratch outs. Renoir's new and lovely substitute sits a bit apart on the left in a straw bonnet with red flowers, a blue dress, nuzzling an adorable little dog. It's a 21-year-old country girl named Aline Charigot.
BARBARA EHRLICH WHITE: She was a waitress in the creamery across the street from where he lived.
STAMBERG: ...Barbara Ehrlich White, author of "Renoir: An Intimate Biography." Aline hadn't known Renoir very long when she posed for "Luncheon Of The Boating Party," but he's fallen for her. She's pretty in pink, and plump. They'd become an item.
RATHBONE: I think that's why she has the role that she does in the painting because you wouldn't ever be in any doubt which figure he was in love with.
WHITE: He shows romance.
STAMBERG: Again, biographer Barbara White...
WHITE: He's the only impressionist that does romance in his art.
STAMBERG: Aline became one of Renoir's favorite models - also, his lover - finally, his longtime wife. Diagonally across from Aline and farther back in "Boating Party," another pretty woman stands between two attentive men - another flowered hat - black - to match her dress. She's thought to be Jeanne Samary, a famous actress.
RATHBONE: She had a huge reputation.
STAMBERG: ...Which had grown huger that summer when she got engaged to the son of a banker.
RATHBONE: And all the gossip columns in the paper were full of it.
STAMBERG: ...Because his proper parents disapproved - not our class, dear. And there's Jeanne in the painting, covering her ears with gloved hands.
RATHBONE: Perhaps she's trying to block out the gossip.
STAMBERG: A brown bowler hat covers the head of another Renoir pal in the picture, a man talking to a rosy-cheeked girl. He sits with his back to us.
WHITE: The Baron Barbier, the guy in the middle...
STAMBERG: Barbier had once been the mayor of Saigon. France ruled Vietnam in those days. Now he lived near the restaurant and stored Renoir's big canvas at his home. For 16 months, the artist traveled back and forth from his Paris studio to the restaurant in Chatou to work on the painting. And somewhere in there, Renoir had a bad accident.
WHITE: He fell off a bicycle in February of 1880, and he broke his right arm. And he was right-handed.
STAMBERG: But the intrepid Monsieur Renoir put brushes in his left hand, and kept right on painting and produced what became his masterpiece. "Luncheon Of The Boating Party" is the centerpiece of this Phillips show - it's up through early January - surrounded now by paintings of and by some of the other folks at that long-ago lunch. It's a delightful reunion of art and discoveries.
RATHBONE: There's always something new to see, even when you're talking about a masterpiece that seems so well-known.
STAMBERG: In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BLUE IN GREEN")
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