It was the summer of 1880 in Paris, 10 years after France's crippling defeat in the Prussian war. Even though France was finally recovering from a serious economic depression, the devastating psychological effect of the war could still be felt. Parisian energy rebounded, however, when workers were given Sundays off. A new society emerged - la vie moderne - and cafes, caberets, dance halls, and theaters all flourished. The building of railroad lines to the countryside allowed Parisians to enjoy their Sundays in the enchanting riverside villages west of Paris.
A small group of artists, called Impressionists, had discovered the new engergy and modern individualism as well. Breaking away from the classic artistic traditions of form and line, with scenes from the Bible or history as inspiration, the Impressionists left their studios to paint "La vie moderne" as they saw it and lived it. Boldly using feathery touches of unblended color in textural brushstrokes, they painted scenes from the caberets, dance halls, theaters and Sunday boaters and picnicers. Pierre-Auguste Renoir was one such painter. The Impressionists met with much criticism, since their technique was such a radical break with the classic artists. One such critic threw down the gauntlet by saying "the Impressionists are inferior to what they undertake. The man of genius has not arisen." August Renoir picked up the gauntlet and created a work of true genius - "Luncheon of the Boating Party."
Susan Vreeland, the author, has given the reader a wonderful fictional accounting of the creation of this masterpiece by Renoir. Renoir met with almost insurmountable obstacles. He had only eight weeks of Sundays to paint it on the terrace of La Maison Fournaise at Chatou before he would lose the good summer light. He was totally broke but somehow had to pay for the huge canvas, paints, fees for 14 models and rent for the terrace each Sunday. When he began working on the painting his right arm was broken, so he painted with his left. Crippling rheumatoid arthritis was beginning to take its toll on his fingers. Woven throughout the book are the personal stories of the 14 people who are in the painting. Their colorful stories paint their own picture of la vie moderne in Paris - an actress, a mime, a journalist, an adventurer, a singer-flower seller, an art collector, a poet, a boatman, a baron, a yachtsman-painter. Vreeland gives us a good taste of the conflicts and hedonism of the era, as well as the anguish and the joy, without which the Impressionists would have had no inspiration.