Our Impressionist Luncheon

September 15, 2011

Today we had perfect weather for a delicious meal at La Maison Fournaise. In case that name is not familiar, on its restaurant balcony in 1881 Renoir immortalized on canvas a group of his friends and colleagues enjoying pleasant Sunday afternoon luncheons. Purchased in 1923 for the astounding sum of $125,000 by Duncan Phillips, today The Luncheon of the Boating Party is the centerpiece of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

La Maison Fournaise is located at "B," on the Island of Chatou in the Seine, which makes many leisurely loops on its way to the sea. The purple route is by car, which isn't that much different from the RER, whose train we boarded at "A," the Arc de Triomphe station. The schedule said it's a 20-minute ride, but various unexplained delays stretched our trip out to over an hour, after which it's a 20-minute walk from the Rueil-Malmaison station. Fortunately, I had my "Estonian" phone to notify them of our tardy arrival. I hadn't noticed until purchasing the tickets that the train was the same one we took to its termination at the next bend of the Seine during a much earlier visit to St-Germain-en-Laye for an equally delicious alfresco luncheon.

We descended the stairway from the bridge to the island below. After the close of the restaurant in 1906, it had fallen into disrepair until being purchased by the town of Chatou in 1979, which named it a listed building, restored it, and reopened the restaurant in 1990.

The island is also called L'Ile des Impressionnistes, since it was a favorite locale not just of Renoir, but also of Monet, Sisley, Morisot, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, and others. We saw a familiar marker along the Impressionist's Path near the Maison Fournaise balcony.

As Phillips Collection members we were awarded a prime table.

We had read some complaints online about the food and service, but after our meal I can only conclude that they were from jealous competitors, because our meal was superb. Betty Lou had scallop tartare and dourade filet with lentils, and I had a thick slab of duck fois gras terrine and slow-cooked veal with morel sauce. The Maitre d' explained that this was a traditional dish that would be started at low heat when a farmer went into the fields in the morning and would be ready when he returned for dinner. It certainly melted in the mouth, but was such a large serving that we couldn't finish it. Their featured wine was a reasonably-priced white Saumur Champigny.

The combination of our late arrival and our usual leisurely savoring of the food meant that we were still sipping our express coffees when the next-to-the-last diners struck up a conversation on their way out. We found we had many similar interests: food, art, travel, and Paris. They live across the way and often drop by for lunch. Wouldn't we love that!

This image gives a better view of Renoir's masterpiece than the one on the path. Most of the participants have been identified, including Aline Charigot, who later became Renoir's wife, in the lower left with the small dog, Gustave Caillebotte across from her, a noted artist in his own right as well as a wealthy art patron whose purchases supported many of the early Impressionists, and the proprietor's son and daughter leaning on the railing. Alphonse operated the boat rental (the origin of the painting's name) while Alphonsine (also a renowned model) welcomed diners to the restaurant.

Our visit was the same time of the year as the boating party's gatherings. The main differences we noted since Renoir's time, in addition to the garb of the diners, is that trees were once more plentiful along the shore, as were sailboats on the Seine – perhaps there would have been more if we had come on a Sunday as this group did. The same bridge is just visible at the upper left.

Renoir added the awning at the last moment, resolving a concern that had troubled him. During the eight Sundays the group gathered, it had been rolled back to provide the best light, but the participants seemed to be floating among the trees. Replacing the awning served to unify the group and create a more intimate atmosphere.

© Copyright 2011 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved