The Impressionists, Renoir, convivial gatherings along the Seine, various shades of love, the birth of a masterpiece, and visuals, visuals, visuals. What's not to love? I started this one last year and got sidetracked by other books that had firm deadlines but kept sneaking back to this whenever I had a spare moment to sink into it. And in all fairness, that is not the way to read this expansive and lush novel. The way to read it is what I did for the second half: luxuriate in it and it alone.
At the opening of the novel, Renoir is just about penniless and desperate to create a new painting that will answer the criticism that the Impressionists as a group are incapable of the kind of important, lasting work that they have striven for in their break with traditional French art. Renoir's vision is a statement definitively refuting this while getting his work hung in the prestigious Paris Salon. Choosing to paint the aftermath of a vibrant, genial luncheon composed of friends and models, the painting is larger in scope than anything the Impressionists have attempted before. The novel tells the tale of the conception and execution of the painting as well as the tales of the people involved, touching on the terrible recent history post Franco-Prussian War, the different sections of Paris, class distinction, and enduring love.
The different characters in the painting all revolve around the character of Renoir; he being, in many cases, their only tie to each other. But amazingly, considering the sheer number of models posing, Vreeland manages to make them distinct personalities with different back stories and all come off as sympathetic. She manages to tie in much history without the book coming off as textbookish. Her research both into the art, Renoir's life, and the local Paris times is obviously thorough and well done. The writing is lush and very visual and will make the reader wish to be at the idyllic Maison Fournaise on the Seine as well. There seems to be a sun-dappled wash over the whole of the book. The end of the book is never in any doubt (after all, the painting is on the cover of the book) and Renoir's life is fairly well documented. But the journey with these characters, the gentleness of the love stories and disappointments, and the insight into Renoir's artistic genius, makes this a welcome and appealing read. Fans of fictionalized art histories will love this one but even those with no interest in the Impressionists will find much to please them in these pages.