The painting, combining figures, still-life, and landscape in one work, depicts a group of Renoir’s friends relaxing on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise restaurant along the Seine river in Chatou, France. The painter and art patron, Gustave Caillebotte, is seated in the lower right. Renoir’s future wife, Aline Charigot, is in the foreground playing with a small dog; she replaced an earlier woman who sat for the painting but with whom Renoir became annoyed.
The diagonal of the railing serves to demarcate the two halves of the composition, one densely packed with figures, the other all but empty, save for the two figures of the proprietor’s daughter Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise and her brother, Alphonse Fournaise, Jr, which are made prominent by this contrast. In this painting Renoir has captured a great deal of light. The main focus of light is coming from the large opening in the balcony, beside the large singleted man in the hat. The singlets of both men in the foreground and the table-cloth all work together to reflect this light and send it through the whole composition.
As he often did in his paintings, Renoir included several of his friends in Luncheon of the Boating Party. Among them are the following:
- The seamstress Aline Charigot, who is holding an affenpinscher dog, sits near the bottom left of the composition. Renoir married her in 1890, and they had three sons.
- Charles Ephrussi—wealthy amateur art historian, collector, and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts—appears wearing a top hat in the background. The younger man to whom Ephrussi appears to be speaking, more casually attired in a brown coat and cap, may be Jules Laforgue, his personal secretary and also a poet and critic.
- Actress Ellen Andrée drinks from a glass in the center of the composition. Seated across from her is Baron Raoul Barbier, former mayor of colonial Saigon.
- Placed within but peripheral to the party are the proprietor’s daughter Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise and her brother, Alphonse Fournaise, Jr., both sporting traditional straw boaters and appearing to the left side of the image. Alphonsine is the smiling woman leaning on the railing; Alphonse, who was responsible for the boat rental, is the leftmost figure.
- Also wearing boaters are figures appearing to be Renoir’s close friends Eugène Pierre Lestringez, a bureaucrat, and Paul Lhote, himself an artist. Renoir depicts them flirting with the actress Jeanne Samary in the upper righthand corner of the painting.
- In the right foreground, Gustave Caillebotte wears a white boater’s shirt and flat-topped straw boater’s hat as he sits backwards in his chair next to actress Angèle Legault and Italian journalist Adrien Maggiolo. An art patron, painter, and important figure in the impressionist circle, Caillebotte was also an avid boatman and drew on that subject for several works.
At the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882, the painting generally received praise from critics. “It is fresh and free without being too bawdy,” wrote Paul de Charry in Le Pays, March 10, 1882. In La Vie Moderne (March 11, 1882), Armand Silvestre wrote, “…one of the best things [Renoir] has painted…There are bits of drawing that are completely remarkable, drawing – true drawing – that is a result of the juxtaposition of hues and not of line. It is one of the most beautiful pieces that this insurrectionist art by Independent artists has produced.” Alternatively, Le Figaro published Albert Wolff’s comment on March 2, 1882: “If he had learned to draw, Renoir would have a very pretty picture…”