Chapter One, “La Vie Moderne” 20 July 1880
“He rode the awkward steam-cycle along the ridge to catch glimpses of the domes and spires of Paris to the east, then turned west and careened headlong down the long steep hill toward the village of Bougival and the Seine. With his right elbow cast in plaster, he could barely reach the handlebar, but he had to get to the river. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Now. Idleness had been itching him worse than the maddening tickle under the cast. Only painting would be absorbing enough to relieve them both. Steam hissed out of the engine, but it built up inside of him.”
This is our first glimpse of Auguste Renoir, wobbling and sliding down an embankment on a steam-cycle, presented by historical novelist, Susan Vreeland. How Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party came to be, changed the school if Impressionism, epitomized by Renoir. This hefty 434-page novel was selected by our Third Tuesday Book Club only because one of our two male members mentioned he had read all of his friend’s historical novels when he knew her years ago in California. None of us had ever heard of her. My understanding of historical novels is that they are about real people, about real events, set in real places, then the author imagines what these people think, say, and do. A good historical novel, for me, cannot include too many facts or be too researched. Looking at the painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, even a novice art critic/appreciator can tell the difficulties presented in painting it: Many people, light issues, representing movement, and showing France, La Vie Moderne. Reading this book is not a mental action, but an experience. Vreeland shares the passion of the artist, the drive to paint and create, and the lighthearted conversation and enjoyment of the moment and the age–all captured by slashing, hurried brush strokes over several sessions. Vreeland captures the Jois de Vie of the moment and of the times.
I enjoyed this book so much that I am going to make reading all of Susan Vreeland’s books a goal to finish by New Year’s Day, 2021. I think there are seven, and all are about artists and paintings. At our club meeting last Tuesday, the assignment was to read any Susan Vreeland. I heard about three of them besides Luncheon, and immediately thought, I’ve got to read that one!