Credit: Stephanie Rudig

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It is not a call you expect to ever get: Somebody vandalized the Renoir.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”—the crown jewel of the Phillips Collection, and arguably the most popularly treasured painting in Washington, D.C.—appeared to be damaged. It was a former security guard who first pointed out the flaw to me: Three ugly lines sprouting from the right nostril of the painting’s celebrated model, Aline Charigot, Renoir’s muse. 

Up close, it looked as if a crafty delinquent had scribbled nose hairs on Renoir’s favorite mademoiselle. Those stubborn lines are still there.

As it turns out, there was no call for alarm. The blemish on Mlle. Charigot’s face is a corruption of pigment, not anything drawn over the surface at all. As the top layer of pigment has turned more transparent with time, some ugly under-paint has grown more visible. While it wasn’t an art-crime emergency, it’s a wrinkle that almost no one outside the museum’s staff has ever noticed.

When Renoir began painting what would become his masterpiece in 1880, he started with a different model for the figure of Charigot, the woman seated on the left who coos at her froofy pup. That much is clear from written accounts, although the other woman’s name is lost to time. Models were easy to come by in Île de Chatou, an island along the Seine, and a destination for the brightest young things of Paris.

Historians and enthusiasts long suspected that Renoir had painted another figure underneath Charigot—who was the woman Renoir would go on to marry, and who served as the inspiration, some say, for every woman Renoir painted afterward, no matter who was standing in as his actual model. Underneath Charigot’s cosmetic mishap, there’s subtle evidence of dramatic intentional changes by Renoir: almost invisible yet unmistakable hints at a complete substitution partway through his process.

“Charigot did come to take the place of a figure in the painting that he removed because he was frustrated with that model,” says Eliza Rathbone, curator emerita at the Phillips Collection and the organizer for Renoir and Friends. “He was fed up with her. We don’t know all the reasons why. Maybe she was always late.

“[Renoir] called her a tart,” Rathbone adds. “She was no help at all.”

It wasn’t until 1996, when the Phillips Collection conducted its first-ever technical review of its Impressionist treasure—using technology newly available to museum conservators—that anyone could say with any certainty what was happening below the surface of Renoir’s painting.

That there could be levels to “Luncheon of the Boating Party” is a remarkable notion on its face. The hallmark of any Impressionist work is a fleeting depiction of light as it falls on a surface, whether on a satin parasol or the river Seine. Renoir’s painting is no exception. The luminous glow of Charigot’s skin, the crystal glasses twinkling on the table, the striped awning flapping overhead—these features all seem far too effortless to disguise profound revisions or corrections. Yet the painting contains depths, secrets that the museum is still teasing out, nearly a century after the museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, acquired it for $125,000, an ungodly sum for a picture in 1923.

“Luncheon of the Boating Party”—the most significant Renoir painting in the region, if not anywhere—is the star of a new exhibition opening this weekend at the Phillips Collection. It’s the first in more than 20 years to put the painting front and center in a deliberate way. Renoir and Friends is the home opener for a series of blockbusters leading up to the museum’s centennial anniversary in 2021. The exhibit seeks to give an utterly familiar masterpiece new context, exploring the intrigue of the lives of Renoir and his libertine cohort. The show goes beyond a narrative explainer, deploying X-ray and infrared imaging of the painting to allow viewers to peer behind the curtain to see how the painting was made.

“Although it appears that Renoir has just caught a moment in time—which he has successfully done—he did it after laboring over the picture a great deal,” says Elizabeth Steele, head of conservation. “There’s almost not a figure or thing on the table that wasn’t altered or slightly adjusted.”

Caught in the right light (which has a technical term: raking light), hints of these course corrections, known as pentimenti, emerge all over the painting. The viewer who has an idea about where to look will find that “Luncheon of the Boating Party” is covered with tracked changes. Steele and Rathbone’s discoveries give brand new insight into the history of a painting that Duncan Phillips predicted in 1923 would do “more good in arousing interest and support for [the Phillips Memorial Gallery] than all the rest of our collection put together.”

Elizabeth Steele Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Not all the changes in this dynamic painting are welcome revelations, though, such as the unsightly lines caressing Charigot’s right nostril. Steele proved this was merely a flub with a demonstration using the museum’s standing Leica stereo-microscope. The Phillips Collection isn’t trumpeting Charigot’s follicular flaw. 

Rather, Renoir and Friends highlights many positive findings from Steele and Rathbone’s close watch over “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Both have devoted substantial portions of their careers to this painting. As the Phillips Collection’s longtime chief conservator, it falls on Steele to guard the museum’s artworks against the wear and tear of time, poor handling, and bad cleanings. The Renoir is in excellent condition, Steele says; she cites Vincent van Gogh’s “The Road Menders” (1889), with its instances of off-brand rust coloration, as an example of a painting whose star has faded over time. 

So the way that Renoir manipulated or erased figures—or shuffled wine glasses around in the absolutely perfect still-life that is the heart of the painting—these are the developments that reveal the artist’s restless efforts to create a painting of perfect ease. Through supplementary artworks, Renoir and Friends unspools the turning point in Renoir’s career. “Until just before he paints theBoating Party,’ he’s really struggling to make a living,” Rathbone says. “We forget what it’s like to be a painter who’s hailed as great. Well, he wasn’t always.” 

Other truths behind Renoir’s single greatest achievement call for a different way of looking.

“One could hardly guess for the painting at the poverty of the surrounding working-class [neighborhood], where Renoir’s mother lived, or its industrial smoke and squalor that his fellow Impressionist [Jean-François Raffaëlli] had recorded,” writes art historian Hilton Brown.

On the eve of its platinum jubilee, the Phillips Collection is proving how much there still is to learn about one of the most famous modern paintings of the last century and a half. For D.C. museumgoers, “Luncheon of the Boating Party” is ubiquitous, a painting that goes without saying, as familiar from reproductions and promotions as from close and reverential inspection. 

In an age when spectacle shows at venues such as the Renwick Gallery or Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden command Instagram notoriety, the Phillips, too, sometimes risks going overlooked.

As the Phillips nears 100, its plans are more progressive and ambitious than its audience may know. The next few years will see the museum expand its program to other parts of D.C. and, in all likelihood, open a new museum building. An opportunity to take a closer look at Renoir is a chance to see the Phillips Collection in a new light (and vice versa). Taking either for granted is a mistake. 

Infrared image of painting Credit: Courtesy of the Phillips Collection

***

Renoir never loved winter. That realization dawned on Rathbone in 1998, she says, when she was assembling a show of French painting for the Phillips called Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige. She was rounding up the usual suspects for her checklist—Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley and other painters whose scenes of light glinting off falling snow serve as a tentpole of Impressionism—when it occurred to her how rare it is to find a Renoir set in the cold. 

“Monet was physically a very hardy man. Monet was tall and big and he loved food,” Rathbone says. “Renoir was slight.”

On October 7, when the Phillips opens Renoir and Friends, it will be the first-ever exhibit focusing in depth on “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” The show comprises more than 40 paintings by Renoir and his contemporaries, from works centered around the essential Maison Fournaise restaurant where “Boating Party” takes place to other portraits of the various characters from his soiree. The range of the show illustrates the fundamental challenge in re-introducing a work that is so well known to viewers: saying something new about Renoir while covering all there is to say.

“It’s often been looked at as a piece that shows the social freedoms of the Third Republic in Paris, and how people of different backgrounds could mix and mingle,” Rathbone says. “That may be true, but this exhibition, by looking into who were his models—who are Renoir’s friends at this time, why they might be included in this painting—shows us that this is actually a true reflection of the range of his own personal friendships.”

Renoir and Friends includes several works by Gustave Caillebotte, a painter who, along with Monet, Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and others, had taken to plein-air painting along the Seine. A close friend of Renoir’s, Caillebotte is the only one of the more than 14 individuals to model for “Luncheon of the Boating Party” who was also an artist. The consensus holds that he shows up at bottom right, wearing a straw hat and draped over a backward-facing chair, glancing across the table at Charigot. 

Guessing the attendees of Renoir’s party is a favorite parlor game for a certain (stuffy) set. There is Ellen Andrée, a French actress who sat for Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, seen sipping from a glass, as well as actress Angèle Legault, depicted by Renoir as doting on Caillebotte. The house proprietor’s daughter, Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise, and her burly brother, Alphonse, lean against the railing of the restaurant patio. Set somewhat apart from the rest, they take in the scene from opposite directions. Charles Ephrussi—the influential editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts and Renoir’s leading patron—shows up slightly out of place in a formal top hat. Perhaps an early faux-pas among the emergent Parisian leisure class. 

Actually showcasing these social connections means looking beyond the walls of the Phillips. This is no simple task: An earlier Renoir painting, “After the Luncheon” (1879), rarely leaves the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. There are relevant paintings by Caillebotte that his descendants only ever lend out for shows about Caillebotte. Rathbone says she tracked down some works that have never been shown together, or shown in a museum setting at all. More than 30 collectors and institutions, public and private alike, contributed works for Renoir and Friends. The Phillips itself owns just one painting by Renoir: “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”  

“It’s the only painting here required,” Rathbone says.

The point in cataloging the identities of Renoir’s contemporaries is not merely to flesh out the 1880s edition of Who’s Who in Paris. The casual interactions of the cast set the painting into motion. Pairs and trios of figures form vectors and triangles of movement across the canvas. The success of the composition relies on a swirl of flirting glances between friends and paramours. The party is packed into an illusory space framed by the striped awning overhead, a crucial feature that Renoir did not think to include from the start.

That fact is one that the Phillips knows thanks to its extensive technical testing of the painting, which is as central to Renoir and Friends as the narrative component. This show includes updated X-radiographic and infrared imaging of the painting first performed in 1996. Looking under the hood reveals new evidence about its construction. For example, the looming figure who completes a triad with Legault and Caillebotte at some point wore a hat, which Renoir later painted over. The realization, long in coming, helps to make sense of why something seems off with the gentleman’s mop of hair.

“Most of the things we saw in 1996 are still the same,” Steele says. “But we have improved digital technology that made the X-ray much more legible, and also we have an improved infrared camera. Looking at it a second time, I noticed things I hadn’t quite noticed the first time.”

An X-ray of a painting works the same way as a dental X-ray. Some pigments are denser than others; these show up on an X-ray as light. Some pigments are transparent to X-rays, so they appear dark in the physical image. (Pigments with a heavy atomic weight, like lead white, are denser, while earth tones such as ochre are more transparent.) Infrared imaging works the opposite way: Paints with carbon in them (such as blacks and browns) absorb infrared rays.

Under infrared, a specter appears where the character of top-hatted Ephrussi talks with a friend. In an earlier version, Renoir painted Ephrussi as looking out toward the viewer. The change of heart shows up as a horror-movie blur in the man’s face when seen in infrared. Renoir’s ghostly goofs are even easier to spot in the X-radiograph. Upon close examination, “Luncheon of the Boating Party” turns out to be a heavily redacted document.

Credit: Courtesy of Phillips Collection

“All over the painting, you’ll find this brushwork that doesn’t correspond” with the surrounding area, Steele says. Drying cracks, where Renoir applied fast-drying paint over a slower-drying paint, betray earlier decisions and strategies, such as the red of the dress worn by the cocotte Renoir dismissed before he employed Charigot.

Renoir and Friends also includes a new read of two microscopic paint samples taken from “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Using a scanning-electron microscope, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute analyzed the samples in cross section, revealing nearly a dozen different layers of paint. That’s a whole lot of slapping a coat of white down over a mistake and starting over. A cross-section taken from near the top of the painting uncovers green pigment, which Renoir used to depict foliage extending all the way to the top of the painting, until he thought better of it and added some necessary architecture to reign in the composition.

Using the technical images as a kind of guide or map, a viewer can start to make sense of the parts of “Luncheon of the Boating Party” that, up close, don’t really scan. Someone who has a clue can trace the barest imprints of missing wine glasses from the gemlike table-setting. There are other puzzle pieces yet to be put into place, too. With more sophisticated technology—better ways of looking—Steele hopes to find another missing person, a figure who faced the viewer and grasped the buffet with both hands.

“I’ve shown this to several colleagues, and they say, ‘Hm, well, maybe,’” Steele says. “There will be another imaging technique that comes along when I’m long gone from here, and then you’ll really be able to see what’s underneath there.”

It’s fitting that science is driving new ways of thinking about Renoir. After all, it was a technological advance that made plein-air painting possible in the first place: the collapsible tin paint tube, which liberated artists from the studio and got them out into nature. The expansion of rail service between Paris and Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1837 made boating excursions along the Seine popular with the bourgeoisie. “Luncheon of the Boating Party” captures Renoir and his elite company enjoying a phenomenon new to French society: le week-end.

“I was always spoiled chez Fournaise, finding there as many pretty girls as I could wish to paint,” Renoir wrote to a friend. “The smart thing was to bring your girl friends to Chatou on Sundays and take them boating. Some people even left them there for several days to get the full benefit of the fresh air.”

Putting Renoir’s physical accomplishments under the microscope, in the hopes of better explaining a painting that looks so breezy on the surface, is one way to offset an attitude that holds some sway today: that Renoir is really superficial. In 2015, an art prankster named Max Geller caused a minor stir by hosting a mock “God Hates Renoir” protest outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A silly demonstration, but not without a critical barb to it. Peter Schjeldahl ran a stirring defense in The New Yorker (“Hating Renoir Is Just a Phase”). Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic for The Boston Globe, doubled down on the resistance sentiment (even as he slammed it as “sophomoric”). 

“Is it worth getting worked up about Renoir?” Smee asked. “He is an artist I detest most of the time. Such a syrupy, falsified take on reality.”

As rampant inequality pushes the world into a new Gilded Age, whatever social message once held sway in Renoir’s indulgent squad portrait seems lost (or irritatingly prescient). And while his personal life is irrelevant to an evaluation of “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Renoir’s late descent into anti-Semitism colored even his evaluation of his Impressionist peers. That perfect day on the Seine was only ever a careful fiction. The pentimento blemish on Charigot’s face takes on an inadvertent reading of its own—a hint of creeping instability and social rot to come.

“In the light of time it does not matter much who the figures are,” wrote Marjorie Phillips at the time of the painting’s purchase. The museum founder’s partner set a milemarker for judging just how much the world has changed since then: “They are every man, all people.”

***

The Phillips Collection, 1927 Credit: Courtesy of Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection frames Renoir and Friends as the start of a countdown to its 100th birthday party in 2021. The museum is popping bottles early, in part because this milestone is unprecedented. The Phillips is the oldest modern art museum in America, having opened its doors years before both the Museum of Modern Art (est. 1929) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (est. 1931). It’s not just the Phillips’ birthday: the whole idea of a house of modern pictures is turning 100.

“We want to have a drumbeat of good things—celebratory, serious scholarship, new—right through to the anniversary year,” says Dorothy Kosinski, the museum’s director.

Major shows in the works to follow Renoir and Friends include big surveys of Paul Klee, Pierre Bonnard, and Pablo Picasso, all powerhouses from the permanent collection. As the Phillips parties its way to 2021 with showcase after showcase, it also aims to underscore a commitment to new trends in the present—not just the greatest hits from the past.

“One part of the Phillips Collection’s personality is about beautiful painting. Renoirs and Bonnards and Cezannes,” Kosinski says. “The other big part, which people tend to forget—because an object like the Renoir is so dazzling, it obscures it—is the fact that Duncan Phillips loved contemporary art. Most of his collecting activity was to directly support American contemporary artists.”

The Phillips was the first museum to buy Georgia O’Keeffe, for example. The gallery gave work by Arthur Dove an early institutional home, but also gave the artist himself an annual stipend. Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940–41), which the Phillips shares with MoMA, is a vital record of the Great Migration, when some 6 million African-Americans fled the terror of the Jim Crow South for the industrial north. In the final years of his life before his death in 1966, Duncan Phillips bought four perfect paintings by Mark Rothko and built a modernist white cube–style annex. (It was later clad over with its current faux Georgian architectural facade.)

In the spirit of following the bleeding edge, the museum is planning at least one project for 2021 to highlight its growing contemporary art collection. Further, the Phillips Collection is commissioning a new (and top-secret) permanent public sculpture for the corner of Q and 21st streets NW.

According to Kosinski, the museum’s most exciting plans all center around the future: The Phillips Collection is expanding its footprint in radical, relevant ways.

In November, the Phillips Collection will take occupancy of a new storefront space east of the Anacostia river. The museum is partnering with the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) on its new 92,000-square-foot expansion, which will share THEARC’s current campus near the Southern Avenue Metro station on Mississippi Avenue SE. Phillips@THEARC—one of four partnerships to be headquartered in the new facility—will focus on educational programs for Ward 7 and 8 residents of all ages. For this underserved demographic, the Phillips is planning K–12 educational programs, resources for teachers, and art and wellness projects.

Back in 2015, the Phillips Collection announced a partnership with the University of Maryland that is already bearing fruit. The arrangement covers the gamut of scholarly research pursuits, from postdoctoral fellowships to lectures and symposia to a biennial book prize for original work in art history. Currently, the University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge at the Phillips Collection operates primarily from the museum’s Carriage House building. But Kosinski says that the two institutions are looking to build something larger: an all-new museum facility in Prince George’s County. The university is eager to elevate the stature of its arts and humanities offerings, Kosinski says, and this project would go a long ways.

“At the beginning, when we talked about a space out there, we were timid. We talked about open [art] storage, something modest, something smaller than modest,” she says. “Now we want to be bolder, because we see the huge impact we could have as a leading arts institution on the campus in College Park and in service to Prince George’s County. It would really allow us to stretch our wings a bit.”

A fully fledged Phillips at Maryland would help to fill the gap in locally focused, non–National Mall museums left by the demise of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2014. As it happens, the University of Maryland was one of several institutions that tried to prevent that beleaguered institution’s dissolution. To no avail: Now, much of the Corcoran’s artworks belong to the National Gallery of Art, while George Washington University serves as the steward for the former Corcoran art college and its flagship building on 17th Street NW. “We’ve experienced the unthinkable with a museum folding in our community,” Kosinski says. 

Reaching out far beyond its perch in Dupont Circle—and going so far to think strategically about how the Purple Line expansion could offer an opportunity to serve a lot more of the DMV—is a bold stroke for the Phillips Collection. In the art world, social equity is a new watchword, so in that sense the Phillips’ moves make sense. Yet when it comes to museum practices, social justice is more honored in the breach than in the observance. The Whitney’s move to a new jewel box that anchors the High Line in New York, or MoMA’s insatiable appetite for Midtown Manhattan real estate, does little to expand access to underserved populations. 

No, a new survey on “Luncheon of the Boating Party” doesn’t do much to establish the Phillips Collection’s progressive bona fides. Brown called the painting “a paean to the senses, to all the beautiful young women Renoir could never resist, to his gay and charming friends, to living and loving, to the physical world itself in all its happy manifestations.” To capture the same gathering of influencers today, Renoir might find himself lining up outside the trendiest rooftop bar in the hottest transitional neighborhood.

But give Renoir his due: “Luncheon of the Boating Party” was an evolution. Driving it was Renoir’s devotion to the Rococo, especially the fête galante, an 18th-century compromise between the scenes of everyday life cherished by the people and the historical painting prioritized by the French academy. With earlier picnic scenes, Renoir tipped his hat directly to Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, but “Boating Party” was his own creation. Renoir built on the strength of Veronese’s “The Wedding Feast at Cana” (1563), a painting he knew well from the Louvre, as critics have long observed. Yet “Boating Party” was Renoir’s statement alone—a work of progress, if not a progressive work.

Duncan Phillips’s knew right away that “Luncheon of the Boating Party” would be his museum’s north star. With its purchase, Duncan Phillips surmised, he had established his institution as “the possessor of one of the greatest paintings in the world.” The Phillips Collection is still searching for answers to Impressionist mysteries, even as the questions themselves keep changing. Renoir’s masterpiece put the American museum on the hunt.

“Great museums are forming, private and public, bright gemlike areas of this youthful America, over the country everywhere,” Phillips wrote in 1924. “Fine art has found its place in the sun.”