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The couple, likely tourists, loiter near a group of young revelers engaging in after-lunch banter. She, a redhead wearing chartreuse, calls her husband’s attention to a young woman, saying, “See that girl in the yellow hat? She looks just like Marie. I went to high school with her.”
The girl who looks like Marie, a winsome young woman leaning on a restaurant’s patio balustrade, is not a living person. It’s Alphonsine Fournaise, one of 14 diners gathered in Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre Auguste Renoir’s 1881 impressionist standard and the Phillips Collection’s signature piece. The painting has hung in the gallery since Duncan Phillips bought it from Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1923; ever since, the Boating Party’s celebrants have charmed museumgoers with
their congeniality. Renoir’s idealization of his sitters his penchant for soften-
ing features to retain youthful exuberance explains why so many visitors find familiar faces in the scene. A British couple stop at the painting and think they recognize the young woman pecking a pooch in the lower left corner, a detail that’s graced the front of countless thank-you cards. The gentleman scratches his chin above his green cravat while contemplating the image and remarks, “Remember that woman Gregory was
dating? Same face…higher cheekbones. Can’t remember her name. Model.”
Museum Supervisor Erik Woodard, who has worked at the Phillips since 1996, has heard tales of visitors moved to gasps or the odd swoon when seeing the painting for the first time. Some, like the visitor who dropped to her knees in ecstasy upon viewing the piece, have gained mythic status at the museum. Institutional legend has it that a woman once delivered a 20-minute monologue to a hapless companion, detailing how her psychic had confirmed that she was the reincarnation of Alphonsine Fournaise, whose father owned the cafe in the painting.
Kathleen Miller, a 60-year-old painter of Byzantine icons,
has guarded the Boating Party twice a week since 1990. “People get very excited when they see it,” Miller assures. “They see friends in the painting.” Recently, a young man requested that
the room be sealed off while he proposed to his girlfriend before the Renoir.
But not everybody loves the painting. “I hate it,” says 22-
year-old Meri Grube, who’s stood guard at the Phillips five days
a week since late April. Grube, who favors German expressionists, deems Renoir’s rendering too saccharine and tries “not
to look at it.” Except for one thing: She refers to the seated man in the painting’s right foreground wearing a 19th-century version of a tank top. “The only good thing about the painting,” Grube insists, “is [Gustave] Caillebotte’s forearm.” —Jessica Dawson