At the beginning of Renoir’s career in the 1860s, he struggled to sell his paintings, relying on benefactors to send him commissions and on his friends to purchase canvases and paints. Additionally, the Salon—the state-run art exhibition in France—repeatedly rejected his submissions.
Then, in 1874, he participated in the first Impressionist group exhibition with Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and other French painters. This exhibition helped launch his success, and within a few years, critics were praising Renoir’s landscapes and portraits.
However, by 1880, his artistic ambitions began to differ from those of his Impressionist colleagues and their anti-establishment inclinations. His growing reputation renewed his desire to prove himself to the Salon jury and artistic establishment.
Around this same time, Émile Zola, a famous writer and critic, challenged the Impressionists to create more complex paintings of modern life that would establish a new formula. With its ambitious scale and complex composition, Luncheon at the Boating Party can be seen as Renoir’s response to both his personal (and Zola’s artistic) challenge.
In the Classroom: Everyone’s a Critic Activity
In 1880, Émile Zola wrote in the French daily newspaper, Le Voltaire, that “the great tragedy is that not one artist of the [Impressionist] group has strongly and definitively realized the new formula that they each bring, scattered about, to their works. The formula is there, broken up infinitely, but not one, in any of them, finds it applied by a master.”
Ask students to read the full excerpt and then explore questions to identify and better understand Zola’s meaning, such as: what is Zola saying in his critique? What does he hope to see emerge within the Impressionists? What was Zola’s role in the 19th-century art world?
Begin to expand the conversation into understanding the role of art critics both historically and today. Have students connect these conversations to writing their own critique of a work of art or artistic movement that they have studied (for examples, check out the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O'Keeffe, Horace Pippin, and other artists in The Phillips Collection.) Ask students to present their selected artwork and critique.