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Luncheon of the Boating Party (Viking)

Interview with Susan Vreeland

Feb. 28, 2008
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Susan Vreeland, New York Timesbest-selling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, has recently published a new novel inspired by an artistic masterpiece: Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Using the painting’s subjects and creator as a starting point she offers a vivid portrait of French society in the late-19th century.

Why did you choose to structure your novel around this painting?
Luncheon of the Boating Party depicts fourteen people of diverse backgrounds enjoying a summer Sunday on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Seine. Their obvious pleasure invites us to join them. Included in the group are an actress, a singer, a painter and champion yachtsman, a mime from the Folies Bergere, a war hero, a poet, an art critic, a journalist of comic escapades. These are real people, Renoir's friends. When I began researching them, I saw that the issues of their lives reflected the issues of the day—the explosion of creative energy, the changes in the art world, the recovery after war, the loosening of social strictures, and the beginning of a feminist movement. In addition, these people from different social classes led their lives in Paris cabarets and cafes, in galleries, at the opera and theater, and on the river in the popular recreation of boating. They provided rich possibilities so that I could tell a story of Paris as it careened toward modernity, as well as the story of the miracle of this well beloved painting.

How much of the characters' experiences are based on true events?

By far, most of the experiences of the characters is drawn from historical research. Any departures from fact are those which did not change the course of history. The recollection of one character's experience with a Prussian soldier during the Siege of Paris ten years earlier was an invention. It certainly lay within the range of possibility, and it allowed me to incorporate something of moral significance into the novel, the issue of following Christ's command to love one's neighbor as oneself as applying to an enemy during wartime as well as peacetime.

Was it difficult weaving in all of these different narratives?
I chose seven of the fourteen models to be point of view characters and to take us into their lives. The difficulty was to have these non-painting episodes, which gave so much of the flavor of 19th century Paris, impact Renoir's progress on the painting, so that the narrative would have one through-line connecting the models' lives with Renoir's work.

Renoir felt a painting should retain a mystery--not everything should be revealed. Isn't your novel divesting his painting of some of this mystery?
Only to a certain extent. There is always more to discover in a masterwork such as this painting. Viewers can still imagine what the models are saying to each other at the moment of depiction. As I mentioned, I chose seven as viewpoint characters who have their time "on stage" during which we see their inner selves. What about the other seven? We see them only from the outside, or as other characters see them. If another novelist working with the painting chose the other seven, it would be an entirely different novel. Therein lies the mystery.

Are you planning to write more novels of this kind?
By "of this kind," do you mean novels related to art? If so, yes indeed. If you mean from multiple points of view, yes again. I've just begun working on Mr. Tiffany and Clara, which follows the symbiotic careers of glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany and the talented, articulate Clara Driscoll, who designed most of the iconic Tiffany lamps. Their loves, losses, and artistic triumphs are set against New York's Gilded Age of lavish mansions in contrast with the more free-wheeling boardinghouses of the working class. You'll have to wait a couple years, though, before the hidden magic of their artistry with glass is revealed.


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