On NPR’s morning edition on Oct. 26 Susan Stamberg, noted inductee in the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame, committed a reporting no-no. She buried the lead of a story about Renoir’s painting “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” failing to recognize the weightiest part of the story until the end – almost as an afterthought.

False start

Her report began with how the artist “itched” to paint the picture. Allow me to recount in the same order that Stamberg used. She opened with Renoir writing to a friend about how much he wanted to record on canvas the boating party by the Seine and went on to detail the picture parts -- a large group of young men and women relaxing, and finishing their after-boating lunch at a restaurant on shore.

Behind the scene

At this point, Stamberg quoted Elizabeth Rathbone, curator of a show at Phillips Collection in D .C. where the painting can be seen: “I really don’t know any painting in Renoir’s work that surpasses the boating party.” (Stick a pin in that praise for the moment). Continuing on, Stamberg got into the weeds about how Renoir enlisted people to pose, how he dismissed one of the female models for lack of cooperation, how infra-red and x-ray tests reveal the painted-over figure, and that in her place was a 21-year-old waitress named Aline Charigot (she’s the one on the left in a straw hat talking to her dog), who the painter fell for and ultimately married.

The bigger story

Following that, Stamberg went on to describe other figures in the painting, identifying some and detailing their attire.

Only then did she wind up the report with a momentous factoid that came off like a tidbit: During the making of the picture, Renoir fell off his bike and broke the arm that he used to paint. Stamberg blithely noted that he put his brush in his left hand and kept right on painting. Did you get that? Right-handed Renoir painted the best picture of his life with a hand he doesn’t even use for writing.

Stamberg, apparently bent on spicing up her report with Renoir’s love life, rendered the broken arm incident a miscellany.

Missed opportunity

How can this be? Given that there are 14 separate people in the picture with imagery that comes across like individual portraits, each in a different pose, a different outfit in assorted colors, and with a variety of facial expressions.

One woman leans on a railing with a wistful look; another arranges her, drawing admiring glances from the men nearby, and, given all the minutia in the painting, from bottles and glasses on the table to leftover fruit, getting all the picture parts to work together without looking jumbled is a masterful feat. Even if the scene were rendered with an artist’s good hand, it’d be an achievement, yet Stamberg buried this tour de force in a narrative titled “Guess Who Renoir Was In Love With In 'Luncheon Of The Boating Party'.”

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