Today’s brief asked me to choose a picture and write about it – which isn’t a million miles away from the Writing question our GCSE students have to do for half the marks on their Language Paper 1. (Except they’re given a picture instead of choosing one.) I’ve taken one of Renoir’s most famous paintings, Le déjeuner des canotiers, and used it as the inspiration for this piece in which Renoir’s much younger lover (later his wife) struggles to establish how the great artist feels about her. Names and dates are factually correct, but the rest is pure speculation.
He stands back from the canvas, eying his work critically. How many days, weeks, months has he put into this painting now? At least he was able to paint most of his group of friends en plein air as they relaxed on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise last summer. It had been a hot day, he remembers – there had been many hot days by the Seine in Chatou – and he had been able to capture his trademark light and shade in the combination of figures, still life and landscape. Fournaise and his sister had both been there, of course – he’d rewarded them for providing the location by placing them both in prominent positions on the left of the painting. Everyone else is crowded together on the right – everyone, that is, apart from Aline.
Aline is speaking to him now – or perhaps berating him would be a more accurate phrase. “It still doesn’t look like me, Pierre,” she says sulkily. “The hair is darker, and my eyes are almost closed.”
“You know I match hair colour to the rest of the painting,” he replies absently. The truth is that another woman had originally posed for the figure now representing Aline. Aline is blonde but he’s darkened her hair a little for this – it’s easier to show the effect of sunlight glinting off burnished, brunette locks. He’s captured her plumpness, though, and the rosy softness of her skin, trying to encapsulate the dizzying effect she had on him when he saw her for the first time a year ago. He likes rounded, fleshy women and he will continue to paint their sensual curves for the next thirty-eight years. Aline will grow plumper still after the birth of their three sons – plumper and even more beautiful. She will be immortalised in many of his pictures, sometimes clothed, sometimes not; with their children, or posing with other people, or sometimes just by herself.
For now, though, she is angry, hands on hips, scolding him as if she were his wife. “You still haven’t introduced me to most of these friends of yours. Are you ashamed of me? Ashamed that your lover is just a dressmaker?”
“Aline,” he protests, listening with only half an ear, his mind already running over further areas that need touching up or repainting. Perhaps it was a mistake to replace the redhead with Aline: one should not let too many mistresses share the same canvas and Jeanne Samary is obviously visible on the right-hand side of the painting. It had never been serious between him and the Comédie-Française actress, despite her parents liking the idea of him becoming their son-in-law. She is definitely his type, though: blessed with the plump figure he admires so much in both a model and a woman, she looks positively pretty in his 1877 portrait of her – the one painted predominantly in pinks and greens.
“Pierre! You’re not listening to me!” and Aline stamps her pretty, little foot. “The Samary woman smirked at me when we met her after the theatre. She said you are not the marrying kind.” Her voice wavers and she turns her large, lustrous eyes on him, full of anger and hurt.
“But we cohabit, my little dove,” he says in surprise. Is that what she wants? A ring on her finger? What difference would it make?
“If I had stayed in Aube,” she says, her cheeks wet with tears, “I would be married by now – and I would have a fat, little baby crawling at my feet.”
“If you had stayed in Aube,” he corrects her, kissing her gently on her eyelids and tasting the salt of her tears, “then we would not have met. How fortunate I am that you came to Montmartre with your mother!”
She twists away from him and he knows that she has not forgiven him – not yet. He sighs. What is a man to do? His first muse, Lise, had been just the same – but he had been younger then: only twenty-six; and they had moved in with his parents for a while for he could not afford to marry at the time. When she had become pregnant with his daughter, Jeanne, he had not been able to acknowledge her officially – much as he wanted to. A wet-nurse had taken the infant and he had made regular donations towards the child’s keep.
He is now almost forty – nineteen years older than his current lover – and an established artist. Is he ready to be a father in deed as well as in name? Is that what Aline wants?
Two years later, another one of his models, Suzanne Valadon, will give birth to a son. Ostensibly the child of her paramour, Miguel Utriillo, it will be whispered abroad that the father could be Degas or even Renoir himself, such is Suzanne’s bohemian nature. Aline is more conventional and there will be tears when she hears the gossip – not least because she has always suspected her lover to be in another woman’s bed when he is not in theirs; but the birth of their own son in 1885 will give her security; and when Renoir finally marries her in 1890 (she will be thirty and he almost fifty), she will know that his love for her is stronger than his feelings for any of the others.
He examines the painting again, congratulating himself on his technique. The folds of the white tablecloth! The way the light filters through the leaves of the trees in the background and refracts from the wine bottles on the table! And Aline herself – it was a stroke of genius to have her holding the little dog, looking at it as affectionately as if it were a baby. Perhaps one day in the future…
“Is it true, Pierre?” she demands now. She really will not let this matter alone! “Are you truly not the marrying kind?”
“Aline, chérie, you know I believe in marriage – but it is the marriage of my brushes with my paints. I am an artist – not a draper. Respectability is for the provinces, not for Paris.”
She exits the room in floods of tears and he sighs. They have not all been as difficult as her – he and his beloved Marguerite hardly had a cross word; but then ‘Margot’ died of smallpox, four years before he met Aline, and he had buried his love for her in the coffin that held her body.
Marguerite had been beautiful – ‘Margot’ was her alias for her modelling work – but neither she nor Jeanne Samary nor even Lise could hold a candle to Aline. She is my ideal woman, he thinks now, and she will forgive me eventually for not marrying her. He will not break with this one: she epitomises everything a woman should be.
Now, however, more pressing things beckon. The muscles in Caillebotte’s arm are not quite right, and since the art patron is an avid boatman himself, Renoir needs to create an impression of strength and power in those arms, despite his friend’s relaxed attitude sitting backwards on a chair. Angèle Legault has been painted listening to Caillebotte with rapt attention, and as he gives the canvas his full attention, he notices that almost all of the women are staring adoringly at a male figure – even Aline who is gazing at the Affenpinscher in her hands as if the dog is imparting wisdom to her.
No doubt the critics will say the painting symbolises his ego.