One day as he was painting a young woman sitting in a boat, someone came up behind my father on tiptoe and put his hands over his eyes for a joke. It was the Baron Barbier, who had just returned from Indo-China, ‘cleaned out to the last sou’, as he expressed it. The Government of the Republic had made him Mayor of Saigon. Instructions had been given to win over the mandarins. Now the mandarins loved champagne, and the English consul had flooded the town with it. The prestige of France hung in the balance. Barbier’s whole fortune had been spent in upholding the honour of his country. After the last bottle of champagne had been drunk, he had handed in his resignation and retired to France. Luckily, he was given a pension for wounds received in Algeria, and at the Battle of Reichshoffen, and in the Crimea.
My father was enormously pleased to see him again, and told him that he was planning a large picture of boatmen lunching with friends on the terrace of the Fournaise restaurant. Barbier offered to serve as stage-manager, getting boats for the background and rounding up models. ‘I know nothing about painting, and still less about yours; but I’d be glad to do you a favour.’
It took Renoir several years to make his project ‘mature’. He had a number of pictures under way; then, too, his sketches for the subject did not please him. He finally made up his mind in the summer of 1881. ‘I am going to start the “Luncheon”,’ he told Barbier, and his friend immediately got into touch with the faithful. I am not certain of the identity of all the people in the picture. Lhote is there, in the background, wearing a top-hat; Lestringuez is to be seen leaning over a friend, who is perhaps Rivière. The young woman with her elbows on the railing is Alphonsine Fournaise, ‘the lovely Alphonsine’, as the habitués of her parents’ restaurant called her. She died penniless in 1935, at the age of ninety-two, having invested all her money in Russian bonds. The young person drinking is ‘little Henriot’; and the woman looking at Lestringuez must be Ellen André. The figure in the foreground, patting a little dog, is my mother.
I paid a visit to the place last year. How depressing it was! Nothing but factories, mounds of coal, blackened walls and dirty water. The leprosy of modern industry had eaten away the little woods and luxuriant grass. North African labourers, weighed down by their wretched fate, were forlornly unloading large metal drums from a barge smeared with grease. Baron Barbier, the boatmen, the carefree young girls, have all disappeared from this part of the river. They live now, for eternity, in the imagination of those who love painting and dream of days gone by as they gaze at ‘The Boatmen’s Luncheon’.