Friday, January 30, 2009

Art fiction: Luncheon of the Boating Party


"Art fiction:" quite simply, fiction based on a piece of art. I don't read as much of it as I would like; I don't read much fiction these days at all. The Girl With a Pearl Earring, based on the work by Vermeer, was a satisfying novel (less satisfying as a film). I had similar high hopes for Luncheon of the Boating Party. First of all, I was attracted by the cover. Yes, I know. But the cover picture, surely one of the most beloved paintings in the Western world, catches the eye and begs to be explored.

I dove into the book eagerly and became engaged in the story quickly. As I went on, I found I wanted to be able to separate the fact from the fiction, so I requested from the library Anatomy of a Painting, a short monograph on the work by Martha Carey (out of print) to read along. It confirmed much of the information the novel gave on characters in the story - the models for the painting. That knowledge added to my pleasure with the book - for a while.

But around 2/3 of the way through the book, I suddenly stopped enjoying it. The story no longer engaged me; it seemed to become a simple story of complicated relationships and unrequited love, against a contrived backdrop of the creation of the painting. I ceased caring about the characters; though I knew they were real people, they no longer seemed real enough to me. Actually, I wanted to know more about the real circumstances around which the painting was created - the fiction wasn't enough for me anymore. I wanted to know more about Alphonsine Fournaise, a pivotal character in the book, and surely in Renoir's real life too. I skipped to the last few chapters, got the resolution, and closed the book.

I am glad I finally read it. (I had gotten it from the library 3 times before I finally read it!) I'm also glad that even though I didn't read the whole thing, it enhanced my love of the painting and made me want to know more; my next Library Loot post will probably include a few books on French impressionism in general, Renoir in particular, which I may or may not get around to reading. I suppose that was one of the author's goals, though surely she would prefer one read the entire book.

If you like art fiction and stories about relationships, you might like this book. The author, Susan Vreeland, has other art fiction which I may check out sometime; her Girl in Hyacinth Blue is quite well-regarded.

While I was writing this I found this list of art fiction. More books to look for, always more books.