Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1880-81 painting Luncheon of the Boating Party, a cornerstone of the collection of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the star of its exhibition Renoir and Friends (through January 7), contains more than a dozen figures and a dog. Some are obscured beyond recognition, but one man in the background, wearing a top hat and with his back turned to the viewer, is Charles Ephrussi, a Jewish art critic and collector.
Many viewers may know that impressionist father-figure Camille Pissarro was Jewish, and that the Dreyfus Affair divided the impressionists, most dramatically Pissarro and the notoriously anti-Semitic Edgar Degas. But Ephrussi’s story and his impact on the impressionists is less widely known. The Phillips exhibition corrects that.
“Few figures of the late 19th century Parisian art world are so omnipresent yet so hard to pin down as Charles Ephrussi,” writes Sara Tas, an exhibitions curator at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, in the Renoir and Friends catalogue. “An analysis of this individual, particularly in relation to Renoir, tells us a great deal about the artistic circles and social tensions of the time.”
Ephrussi first collected Italian Renaissance works, including tapestries derived from Raphael cartoons and a small sculpture by one of the della Robbia artists. He was also interested in Japanese art, newly fashionable in Paris at the time, Tas writes. At age 28, he debuted as a writer for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, where he would remain for nearly 30 years, including as co-owner and director.
Ephrussi rubbed elbows with Parisian elite and his reputation as an art historian grew, but he was nevertheless treated unfairly. That “may be connected to the paradoxical life of a French Jew of the period,” Tas notes. “Jews were, in principle, accepted, especially if they adapted to French Republican values, but they were seldom completely trusted.”
Ephrussi’s secretary referred to him as a “Benedictine dandy,” which was an “odd association for a Jew,” Tas adds. And even as poet Jules Laforgue intended that moniker to be a compliment, others, like Edmond de Goncourt, another French man of letters, were less kind. Tas tells us that the latter wrote, “Ephrussi the Jew went to six or seven parties a night, so that he could climb to a position at the Ministry of Fine Arts.” And the English author George Painter, who was Marcel Proust’s biographer, recorded that people made fun of Ephrussi’s “Polish Jewish” accent.
Ephrussi helped Renoir in particular find buyers in the French Jewish community.
It’s difficult to pin down Ephrussi’s collection at any given time, because he often bought and sold works, but it included a Renoir painting of a cat (Ephrussi was a pet lover) and works by other impressionists and by François Boucher, as well as a wide range of other objects and media: porcelain, ceramics, bronze, and textiles.
Not only did Ephrussi buy work from the impressionists and write about them, but he also “won over” other clients for the impressionists, according to Tas. Ephrussi helped Renoir in particular find buyers in the French Jewish community. Tas writes:
Ephrussi’s help made a substantial difference at a critical point in Renoir’s career. As he gained popularity as a portraitist, among both Jewish and non-Jewish clients, he gradually became able to afford to continue developing his talents and to make ambitious non-commissioned work such as Luncheon of the Boating Party.
But Renoir too would write in an anti-Semitic manner about Ephrussi, and their relationship cooled.
So why did Renoir choose to portray Ephrussi in the large painting Luncheon of the Boating Party, and why from behind? The jury is still out on these questions. There is some evidence, or near evidence, that the figure in the top hat is the Jewish patron. Renoir told art dealer Ambroise Vollard that Ephrussi sat for the painting, and when he sought to buckle down and finish the work, which had taken longer than anticipated, Renoir asked someone else when Ephrussi would return.
Detail of comparison, Luncheon of the Boating Party
Perhaps portraying Ephrussi from behind saved the wealthy man time modeling, or maybe Renoir — or Ephrussi — didn’t want the latter to be easily identifiable. “That would be consistent with Renoir’s ambivalence toward his ‘patron,’” Tas observes. “Was Ephrussi doing Renoir a favor by modeling for this expensive project free of charge? Or was Renoir expressing his gratitude to Ephrussi for putting him in contact with new buyers and successfully organizing his entry to the Salon, thus helping to make this ambitious project possible?”
In the end, Tas hedges:
The fact that the bond between patron and artist did not last may have to do with Renoir’s anti-Semitism, but is probably just as much a result of Ephrussi’s eclecticism. Even though Ephrussi was seen as erudite and belonged to the establishment, he was probably always making an effort to adapt to French society, so that he, as a Jewish immigrant, would not find himself out in the cold.
Phillips Collection exhibition curator Eliza Rathbone says that Renoir definitely didn’t deliberately obscure Ephrussi in the painting, and in fact the latter was the only sitter identified by a critic when the work was shown in 1882: “Ephrussi seems to have been both widely known and recognized, but also elusive and private. I think the exhibition brings that out.”
One of many adjustments Renoir made to the composition was to turn Ephrussi to face a young man, to convey a conversation between the two. “Ephrussi acted as a mentor to various younger men, including Jules Laforgue and Marcel Proust — the latter post-dating Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Rathbone says.
— Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter in Washington, D.C.