The Phillips Collection and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party ~ 40 Years Later!

Almost 40 years ago I visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, with my Mom.  I have vague memories of doing so, such as a feeling of visiting someone’s home/estate filled with art.  It isn’t a large museum like the National Gallery of Art, but something more intimate.  Our visit was before I knew I wanted to become an artist, but it left a lasting impression on me as a place I’d love to go back to someday.

Over this last weekend, while Jen was having a mini-reunion with high school girlfriends, a few of which she hadn’t seen in 40 years, I decided to have my own reunion with the Phillips Collection after 40 years.  

I almost gave up on it, having driven around the block ten times looking for a parking spot!  As luck would have it, on my last attempt before giving up I found a spot right in front of the museum.  It was meant to be I thought to myself.  There was a reason a voice inside me was saying “Go visit the Phillips Collection.”  

After enjoying three floors of a large collection of American Art (the special exhibit) I entered the older building, which triggered my memories of my previous visit.  I was inside the home of the wealthy art collector Duncan Phillips, viewing his personal collection of American and European art.  He loved to support and discover living artists of his day.  He would become friends with many of the artists whom he collected and with every purchase he had a real connection to each piece.  

As I walked up the steps to another level, in a large room, I spotted a large Renoir I remembered as The Boating Party.  It turned out to be the piece I was most drawn to in the entire museum.  I wasn’t sure why, but I kept looking back at it as I thought of walking away.  I went back several times and pushed the boundaries of being within the two feet allowed for viewing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The large scale of the painting, the brighter colors, and a level of detail I hadn’t seen in many other Renoirs all surprised me.  I thought this must be considered one of Renoir’s masterpieces!

It piqued my curiosity and I knew I had to read up on the painting and its background.  Here is a little of what I discovered:  

Renoir painted the painting in 1875.  It was at a time when critics of Impressionism were accusing the French Impressionists of doing “sloppy work” and of being lazy.  The well-known art critic Emile Zola wrote about the Impressionists work as being “incomplete, illogical, and exaggerated”.  

Many believe that Luncheon of the Boat Party was Renoir’s answer to Zola’s criticism of him and his contemporaries.  Renoir wanted to prove the critics wrong and thus created a painting that showed signs of moving away from Impressionism and toward realism.  It was in 1883, only 8 years after this painting that Renoir gave up Impressionism completely for a more realistic style.  

It is also believed that this painting was the result of Renoir wanting to establish himself as one of the Impressionist Movement’s greatest painters. Renoir spent six months painting Luncheon of the Boating Party.

All of this explains why I was so drawn to the painting.  Renoir was pushing himself to a new level, answering his critics.  The painting has a complex composition, strong lighting, a fluidity in the brushwork, strong use of color, etc...  He went with a wonderful balance of Impressionism and Realism.  I love that combination.  He created a “painterly” painting that shows off his creative side while at the same time proving he was a serious painter.  I could tell by looking at it that the artist put his heart and soul into it.

Obviously, Duncan Phillips saw something special in this masterpiece by Renoir.  He purchased it in 1923 for $125,000 and made it a focal piece in his home.  He realized that many would feel just like I felt upon seeing the painting, and thus the painting holds a prominent location in the museum where one can view it from a distance or study it up close.  

I love the quote by the actor Edward G. Robinson, “For over thirty years I made periodic visits to Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boat Party in a Washington museum, and stood before that magnificent masterpiece hour after hour, day after day, plotting ways to steal it.”  

Now, I too have made periodic trips (every 40 years) to a Washington museum to stand before Renoir’s masterpiece.  It most likely was an inspiration to me when I first saw it, and it most definitely was this time!

I’m so glad I made the effort to visit the Phillips Collection.  Inspiration to an artist is all-important, and I find it whenever I visit fine art museums. 

The Phillips Collection is filled with masterpieces and is well worth the visit.  You can visit the website at www.phillipscollection.org.


One of the joys of being an artist is having the freedom to follow my passion...
— William R. Beebe
What's next? Drawing by William R. Beebe

What's next?

Drawing by William R. Beebe