Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Boat, circa 1878Back

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The Boat
circa 1878

Oil on canvas
54,5 x 65,5 cm
Museum Langmatt, Baden
Inv.-no. 183


Is it possible to be inwardly absorbed in nature more intensively than in this picture? How could we possibly be more closely united with nature on such a small surface? In the midst of the dense foliage, a small, easily viewed expanse of water opens up, complete with a boat and passengers. We do not know whether or not the boat is in gentle movement. It may be as motionless as the woman in her white “Sunday” clothes who sits within it. She shows noticeable tension, bracing herself to left and right in her little cockleshell, uncertain. Also, we must not overlook the striking bare branch that extends transversely across virtually the full width of the picture, dividing into two twigs near the woman’s head, actually rising slightly and appearing to push the little boat, together with its passengers, imperceptibly into the jungle off to the right. Almost all of the other branches and twigs in this picture remain virtually invisible—even though there must be a fair number of them, given the quantity of leaves.

Renoir uses swift brushstrokes to fan out tufts of meadow grass, bushes, and trees to form an opulent and positively symphonic forest. In every location, the ever-present sunlight illuminates and backlights the foliage, causing it to flame with color, even though — apart from some marginal sections at the upper edge of the picture—we can see neither the sky nor the sun. The individual plants recede, non-identifiable, behind the brightly flickering curtain of nature. Every leaf, every blade of grass is in motion, rustling and crackling, trembling and flickering.

And yet the overpowering vastness of this natural world, its impenetrable quality — one might almost say, its endless quality— only achieves its fullest unfolding in the solitary person, who, tellingly, is dressed in the “non-color” of white. If she were not present in the picture, we would have no sense of scale and no center to the picture. Above all, however, we would not have the narrative tension between the individual and the inexhaustible volume of the foliage, the endlessness of nature. A question arises as to whether she has or once had a companion (male or female), and, if so, where has he or she gone? Above all, why? Have they just got out and stomped away in a fury? A sudden relationship crisis on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? They had wanted to get out into the charming natural world, in order to be (once again) close to each other. And now this? There are plenty of assumptions we could make, but one thing is certain: civilization and nature are meeting in an ambiguous manner, strangely alienated from each other. And this is, to boot, a form of civilization that has already been amply weaned away from nature. To be more precise: her white clothes could hardly be any less suited for a journey amid wild vegetation, not to mention the little hat. Perhaps the woman did not originally intend to go so far, but she had found herself going deeper and deeper into the primeval forest that was initially such a charming little wood? Alone and isolated in a great expanse, the romantic idyll suddenly transforms into its precise opposite.

Markus Stegmann in: «Herzkammer», Museum Langmatt 2020