The boating party

For Marnie, with thanks for many happy memories, and for your long-standing support of this blog. Sail on, silver girl.

I am thinking about boats today, for several reasons. One is the fact that a good friend of ours who has been a keen and competent sailor for much of her life has been diagnosed with ALS and has had to let her boat go to someone else. We have many memories of sailing around the Toronto islands in that boat.

Another reason is that I have inherited a trove of family documents that includes an album of photographs depicting a boating party in the waterways in and around Shanghai in 1911. The photograph below shows the houseboat on that occasion. I can identify my grandmother Dora, my great-grandmother Wilhelmina, and my great-uncle Gerald among the party.*

We have written about working boats and péniches on the Seine, but have not paid as much attention to pleasure boats. This was not true of French painters in the late 19th century. I’m not so much thinking of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” which is all about luncheon and not so much about boating, but more of a print that hung on the wall in my bedroom from the time I was 10 to the time I left home.

It had been given to my father, along with several other reproductions of French paintings, and he had had them framed. My sister had Degas’s ballerinas, Van Gogh’s Church at Auvers hung in my father’s study, and Rousseau’s Carnival Evening hung in my parents’ bedroom.

I loved my Seurat. It was usually the last thing I saw before Mum turned out the light at night. I have never aspired to rowing, but I was always calmed by the sight of the man bent over the oars, and the sailboat moving on its own without human intervention (that I could see).

Mary Cassatt’s boating parties are less relaxing to contemplate, because I always worry about the fate of the children, who seem to be held rather casually and do not wear appropriate life preservers while on the water. I just have to hope they returned to shore safely.

There are dozens of paintings of boaters from the late 19th century. I find the clothing endlessly interesting. Some wear informal attire, as shown by Manet (although the remarkably relaxed lady appears to be wearing her Sunday best).

By contrast, Gustave Caillebotte’s top-hatted gentleman seems to have walked out of an office or a drawing room, thrown his jacket into the boat, and picked up the oars.

Sailing and rowing became popular in the 1830s and 1840s in France, following the lead of Great Britain, where messing about in small boats is a religion, at least for those who can afford it. According to one scholar:

The new French pursuit of pleasure-boating, modelled on the sport of the British upper classes, was … intended to form the character of national élites. The Yacht-Club de France, with offices in Paris, was sponsored by the Emperor and patronised by the Minister of the Marine, while clubs at Asnières and Argenteuil included British diplomats and businessmen among their directors and, through to the 1870s, were open only to the wealthy and the well-connected.**

By the time the Impressionists were painting in the 1880s and 1890s, however, pleasure boating was no longer just a pursuit for the wealthy, but was well established among the middle classes. Shoals of people headed downstream along the Seine on Sundays to rent a boat or lunch in a guinguette (a casual restaurant).

The only guingette by the river we can claim to have patronized was near the museum of porcelain in Sèvres, which we visited with our friend Mireille. Plastic chairs and take-out food, but a good view. On one riverbank, it was all greenery with a river path that led to the Parc St-Cloud, with a row of boats moored in the river.

On the other, very large buildings, also with boats moored in front.

The view today is less bucolic than it was in the days of Cassatt and Caillebotte, but the passion for boating appears unabated.

We also love to stroll along the Bassin de l’Arsenal, near the Bastille, to see the pleasure boats and their green-glass reflections and imagine a life in which we own one of them and could set off at a moment’s notice to explore the waterways of France.

Parisians’ love of boating stood them in good stead in January 1910. When the waters rose, and rose, and then rose some more in 1910, and Paris turned into Venice, a flotilla of skiffs and punts and rowboats appeared to ferry people through the flooded streets. Here is an example from our postcard collection.

Of course, the symbol of the City of Paris is a boat and the original inhabitants were island dwellers. Pleasure-boating of a certain style may have been imported from Great Britain in the 19th century, but boating itself is woven deep into the fabric of the city. Think of all those boats pictured in Turgot’s map depicting the city in the 1730s. Paris has always been focused on its waterways.

When we finally get back to Paris, I want to get out on the water, and feel the breeze.

Text and contemporary photographs by Philippa Campsie; photograph of the Bassin de l’Arsenal by Norman Ball. Postcard from our collection. Paintings from Wikimedia Commons.

*Great-uncle Gerald went to Shanghai before the First World War to work as a stockbroker. He married a teacher and lived there until the 1930s. His mother and sister visited him in the course of a trip around the world. This fact is quite impressive, given my grandmother’s disposition to dreadful motion sickness of all kinds, which I have written about before.

** Tricia Cusack, “Bourgeois Leisure on the Seine: Impressionism, Forgetting and National Identity in the French Third Republic,” National Identities, vol. 9, no. 2, 163–82, June 2007.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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5 Responses to The boating party

  1. Elizabeth Willis says:

    Thank you for this blog – I always enjoy your research and your deep knowledge of Paris (and your postcard collection!)

    We are going north along the Seine in April – I think the cruise ship is reasonably small! – so your comments on how Parisians have used the river over centuries will help us appreciate the river even more.

    Thank you again – and hope you get to Paris again soon.

    Best wishes

    Elizabeth Willis from Melbourne, Australia

  2. Ellen A says:

    Absolutely delightful post, and what a wonderfully adventurous family you come from! No doubt you’ve read that Pinault has purchased that Caillebotte of the gentleman rowing in his top hat for the Musée d’Orsay. Hope you will get back to Paris soon to see it.

    • We saw a wonderful Caillebotte exhibition at the Musee Andre-Jacquemart in 2011. It is definitely high time to get back to Paris and spend more time with those paintings.

  3. Jan Whitaker says:

    Enjoyed reading this. The paintings are delightful.

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