The Jewish Art Critic in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”

November 22, 2017 | Menachem Wecker
About the author: Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

In one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s best-known paintings, a bearded man in a top hat stands behind most of the other figures, with his back toward the viewer and his face partially obscured. Experts, along with many of Renoir’s contemporaries, have identified this man as the Jewish art critic and art collector Charles Ephrussi. Menachem Wecker writes:

Born in 1849 in Odessa, Ephrussi came from a wealthy Jewish family, which made its money in grain exporting and banking. By the 1870s, he was living in Paris, and anti-Semitism was on the rise. . . .

Ephrussi first collected Italian Renaissance works. . . . He was also interested in Japanese art, newly fashionable in Paris at the time. . . . At age twenty-eight, he debuted as a writer for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, where he would remain for nearly 30 years, [eventually] 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. . . . Edmond de Goncourt, [a] French man of letters, . . . 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. . . .

Not only did Ephrussi buy work from the Impressionists and write about them, but he also “won over” other clients for the Impressionists. [He] helped Renoir in particular find buyers in the French Jewish community. . . . But Renoir too would write in an anti-Semitic manner about Ephrussi, and their relationship [subsequently] cooled.

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