Renoir is not one of my favorite painters, no matter how long the list gets he does not make it. The later the works the less I find to admire in them, especially the nudes which seem voyeuristic. But there are exceptions in Renoir's early work, like The Luncheon, painted in 1875. Just the year before the artist had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition, the one that had earned this loose-knit group the derisive nickname from critics.
As a picture The Luncheon is a combination plate; the wainscoting and the wallpaper in the background of the restaurant where the young couple sit have been drawn in a detailed and realistic manner while a revolution is taking place on the table where they are seated, belying the quiet mood.
And what of the reflected light that seems to be coming from an unseen window at the right edge of the canvas? There are shadows cast by the baguette and the man's hand resting on the table. And there are dabs of light (more white paint) on the bread knife and on the knife the young woman grasps in her hand.
The Paris of Renoir's. youth had doubled its population in a mere two decades from 1850 to 1870. With such rapid growth there were bound to be social upheavals and changing mores. Renoir had a nose for the new modern pleasures, a heady combination of boating, bathing, and flirtation that took place on Sundays at cafes along the Seine. The most famous and definitely the one most-painted was La Grenouille (The Frog Pond), what the French call a gangette - a floating bar. In 1869 even th Emperor and his wife ventured out to see what made it a hot spot. The straw boater hat hanging on the empty chair signals that The Luncheon is one of these Sunday outings.
The son of a tailor, Renoir had learned to draw using his father's marking chalk - the feathery, flickering brushstrokes. At thirteen Pierre apprenticed at a porcelain workshop where he soaked up a taste for decorative colors. The brushstrokes made possible by the ferule, a flat metal sleeve constraining the bristles, revolutionized painting, making those quick, agitated strokes possible. Plus imagination and daring and bravura technique.
Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Luncheon, 1875, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia