The leisure gap

20th January 2006 at 00:00
New chrome colours suffuse Renoir's vision of the French middle class at play, in a painting which vividly depicts summer by the Seine. Donald Short explains

It is a calendar classic, a poster image for the more sophisticated student bedsitter. Two women in bonnets are seen in a long rowing boat crossing the frame from right to left. A crop of rushes in the foreground adds to the illusion of space between the boat and the baseline of the painting. In the background, on the left, is a sail boat going in the opposite direction, a tidy compositional device that carries your eye to the railway bridge on the right, which in turn draws your attention back along the railway line where an Italianate-style villa faces across the river.

A train is visible above the trees, its funnel emitting clouds of smoke.

The villa is possibly a later addition as its relative scale is a little awkward. The sky is reduced to a sliver, while water dominates more than two-thirds of the painting. This extremely uneven distribution of land and sky is reminiscent of Japanese prints of similarly ordinary subject matter, which at the time (the late 19th century) were widely available and much admired by the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The site of "Boating on the Seine" is not known for sure. What is clear is that is was made somewhere near Paris along the river, which twists like a discarded ribbon to the west of the city, and where in the second half of the 19th century a number of popular resorts sprung up catering to sailing, swimming and out-of-town cafe society. These resorts catered for what has variously been called the petite bourgeoisie or nouvelle couche sociale.

This was a new class of people with a new sense of their own importance, drawn into the jobs created by the expansion of Paris under Napoleon III (ruled France 1849-1870) - people from behind the counters of shops, government officials, office workers and clerks. The growth of the railways in the 1850s encouraged further development to the west of Paris, making these resorts easily accessible.

Contemporary critics and sketch writers were critical of this new leisure-seeking class and its impact on the environs of Paris and were happy to poke fun at them. One contemporary commentator remarked, "wherever there was a wretched square of grass with half a dozen rachitic trees, there the proprietor made haste to establish a ball or a cafe." In a cartoon by Trock from La Caricature, volume 1 (1882) a group of Parisians are depicted conversing beneath the shade of a tree while in the background a train passes by along an embankment. "Really," says the man, "living in Paris, on the place de l'Europe, had become unbearable. Nothing but the noise of the western railway all day..." To which comes the reply from the latest convert, "And here, how do you entertain yourself?" (answer) "We watch the trains go by."

As well as reminding us of the proximity of the city and the social importance of this new means of transport, Renoir's inclusion of the train and rail bridge is an aesthetic choice that places this apparently idyllic scene squarely in the modern industrial age. He is not, however, prepared to tell the whole truth, for the fact of the matter is that factories belching out acrid smoke already lined the Seine between these river resorts; and the main Parisian sewer emptied into the Seine at Asni res, near where this painting may have been made. The painting's surface is dominated by the vivid blue of the water in direct contrast with the unusually orangeyellow boat. In this juxtaposition of colours Renoir sought to create as brilliant an effect as possible to evoke the warmth and brightness of the sun. Cobalt blue and chrome orange and yellow were relatively new colours in the artist's palette. The discovery of iron chromate in the Var region of France had led to the creation of a range of vivid chrome colours most of which are included in the painting. These new chrome colours were the direct result of experiments by the chemist LN Vauquelin (1763-1829).

Chromium pigments also create the greens and yellow greens of the riverbank landscapes and foreground foliage. In 1839 Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889) published The Principles of Harmony and Colour Contrast. In his book, Chevreul states that certain colour groups - greenred, orangeblue, and yellowpurple - in combination mutually enhance each other; in this case the blue of the water making for a more vibrant orange boat and vice-versa. These complementary colours are still known and used for maximum impact today, notably in packaging and advertising.

McVities use the same orangeblue combination used by Renoir in this painting in their packaging for Jaffa cakes.

On one level then, this painting records a cultural phenomenon at a time of dramatic social change. On another, it is evidence of developments in inorganic chemistry and paint production. It is also a visual feast - but don't be misled by its apparent spontaneity. Although famed for painting rapidly out of doors, in reality many Impressionists were either studio-based or, if they started a painting out of doors, "worked it up"

considerably once the artist had returned to the studio. Accordingly, this painting went through a number of alterations before completion.

Donald Short teaches at Moyles Court School, Hampshire

* Reference

Art In the Making: Impressionism by David Bomford, Jo Kirby, John Leighton, Ashok Roy. Published by The National Gallery London in association with Yale University Press, pound;19.95 The Painting Of Modern Life: Paris In The Art Of Manet And His Followers by TJ Clarke. Published by Thames and Hudson, Pounds 19.95

Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1841-1919

The son of a tailor, Renoir began his career as a porcelain painter in Paris, later enrolling in the studio of Charles Gleyre. There he met a number of the artists later to be called Impressionists, notably Monet with whom he was to paint at La Grenouill re, a bathing resort on the Seine. He died in 1919.

Lesson ideas

Art and design


Using coloured paper, trace objects such as hands and feet. Cut out and place on different coloured paper grounds and discuss the different effects. Make some paintings out of doors using strong colour contrast.


Reinvent the colour wheel for the 21st century by sourcing images from the internet or taking pictures with a digital camera. Images of football kits can be used to make a basic colour wheel of primary and secondary colours; or try tropical fish or shoes. Using Photoshop, alter the colour of images to fill any gaps. Taken with a digital camera images such as faces of people in the class can be manipulated in Photoshop to fit the colour wheel spectrum.


Bring Renoir's painting up-to-date by visiting a beach or leisure centre.

Collect primary sources through drawing and (with permission) photography.

These records can then be used to develop work either in paint or digital media.


Make a study of a more recent cultural phenomenon such as chavs or gangstas. Record their activities, behaviour and style of dress. This might best suit a photography project. Research images of Mods, Rockers and Punks as examples of similar photo stories from the past.

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