The Science of Process

The Science of Process

In order to better understand Renoir’s process, conservators (a specialist in art and science to preserve objects over time) at The Phillips Collection used different technical analysis to look beneath the surface of the paint.

Using an x-radiograph, which is like an x-ray machine for paintings, conservators have discovered that the biggest changes were made to the sitter in lower left where Aline Charigot sits holding her dog. Originally, Renoir painted a woman looking out at the viewer, who wore a different dress and had her arm was in a different position folded against her side. In a letter to his friend Paul Bérard, Renoir explained:

I have no choice but to still work on this cursed painting because of a high-class cocotte, who had the imprudence to come to Chatou wanting to post; this has caused me two weeks delay and, in short, today I wiped her out. 

In another instance, conservators used infrared reflectography, which revealed Renoir’s focus on the still-life arrangement on the table in the foreground—two wine glasses were painted out and one of the tall glasses was originally a wine glass. The reflectogram also shows that the figure in the top hat, Charles Ephrussi, originally faced the viewer instead of turned toward Jules Laforgue. Refer to this chart for more detailed information: 

Some changes can even be seen on the surface of the painting. For example, the red and white awning that covers the diners was added later in the creation of the painting. This addition created a more intimate and enclosed atmosphere, as opposed to imagining the painting with a view of the open sky and background landscape. Looking closely, a viewer can see a slight halo around the hat of Jules-Alphonse Fournaise where Renoir adjusted the hat’s placement to accommodate the added awning.

In the classroom activities below, students will use the x-radiography and infrared reflectography to identify changes in Renoir’s process and apply these new understandings to learning about art conservation. Students will also empathize with Renoir’s challenges in creating the painting.


In the Classroom: Interview a Conservator Activity

Ask students to conduct research on x-radiography and infrared reflectography as tools in art conservation. Students can identify the differences in the type of information each technique reveals. Then, have students develop questions about each technology. As a class, refine the list to the top five or ten questions and try to locate an art conservator to send these questions to. Students can either send them via email and/or set up a call with an art conservator to interview them via videoconference.

If students are not able to get in touch with an art conservator, take time to watch some of these short documentaries about art conservators and conservation:

What new information did students learn about art conservation? What other technologies and techniques are used?

In the Classroom: Letter Writing Activity

Visual and technical analysis allow conservators to understand Renoir’s process. However, Renoir also revealed some of his challenges in painting Luncheon of the Boating Party through letters. In the fall of 1880, he wrote to patron and friend Paul Bérard, explaining his frustration about one of the sitters who he decided to replace with Aline Charigot (see quotation above).

Using the x-radiograph and infrared reflectogram images, identify compositional changes in Luncheon of the Boating Party, such as the addition of the awning. Ask students to select one of those changes and empathize with Renoir’s feeling of frustration by writing a letter to Paul Bérard or another Impressionist painter. Have students express the challenge Renoir faced and how he sought to overcome it.