From London, Renoir’s “The Umbrellas”

This is Post #1 from London and Paris.

Heathrow Express: 3 am Los Angeles time

We land at 11:15 am at Heathrow Airport and, after going through Customs, catch the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, a short walk from our hotel.  A huge pot of English Breakfast tea is sent up to our room, which helps revive us after the long flight.  Even so, we look a bit bedraggled, for it is now 4 am in Los Angeles. Too excited to take a nap, we catch a cab to the National Gallery. We’ll see if looking at beautiful paintings helps overcome jet lag. Following a hearty lunch, we actually feel almost normal and set off to tour the galleries.

The National Gallery is a treasure trove.  One of the paintings I wanted to see was Renoir’s “The Umbrellas.”  While in film school (25 years ago!) I had a poster of “The Umbrellas” in my kitchen over the stove.  I used to study the woman in the foreground while I stirred the contents in my pots and pans.  Now, as I walked into Room 44, I saw the real painting across the room.  A wave of unexpected emotion engulfed me as I approached the woman in the black dress. “Wow, what’s this?” I wondered.  Then as I approached to look more closely at this woman I remembered so well, I saw myself standing in front of a stove at a different moment in my life, when I was on the brink of change (choosing between “uncertain happiness” and “certain unhappiness” as I write about in Two in the Middle).  That’s what this is, I realized.   Renoir’s painting had magically transported me back in time, to a pivotal moment in my life story, making me appreciate the distance I had travelled.

Renoir's "The Umbrellas"

We learned interesting details about Renoir’s painting.   The outfits worn by the young girls on the right side of the frame reflect the fashions in 1881.  Renoir’s painting technique is also looser on this side of the frame.  In contrast, the woman in the foreground is wearing a dress that would have been worn in 1885, when Renoir had moved on to a different painting style.  This is also when he added the umbrellas and completed the painting.

The National Gallery has a wonderful website, which allows you to take a Virtual Tour, making it feel like you’re walking into 18 of the museum’s galleries. You can even “step closer” and see brushstrokes.  Although “The Umbrellas” is in Room 44, which is not part of the Virtual Tour, you can have a look inside Rooms 43 and 45 that include paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, and other Impressionists.  If your cursor goes wild (like mine sometimes did), you’ll even glimpse views of the hardwood floor and skylights in the ceiling (which are actually interesting to look at). Click here to go to the page with the Virtual Tour link on the left side of the frame.  And stay tuned for Post #2 from London and Paris.


  • Andy McEwan

    Pamela, this picture has a particular resonance for me too. Some years ago, on a Summer School whilst studying art history with the Open University, I and some other students went to the National Gallery with one of our tutors. He stopped us in front of this picture and asked us to describe what we saw. Then, unexpectedly,he said, “Who is the girl with the basket looking at, Andy?” The obvious answer was, “the viewer”. “But who is the viewer, Andy?” was the next question. “Renoir?” I tried. “Who else could the viewer be, Andy?” and so on, and so on. I won’t bore you with all my answers but the tutor certainly made me look closely at the picture and I rambled on for probably 10 minutes analysing it. When I’d finally said my piece and turned away from the picture, I was mortified to see that not only my fellow students and tutor had been listening to my spiel but so had a sizeable number of people who were visiting the gallery – a couple even applauded politely!
    Oh, by the way, you’ll note that the little girl with the hoop is also looking out of the picture at “the viewer” – I wonder who she’s looking at.

    • TwointheMiddle

      We absolutely love this story. You made me pay attention to the girl with the hoop, who I have never really noticed before. My eye is always drawn to the woman in the black dress. But now that you have pointed her out, there is something incredibly interesting to think that one subject from 1881 and another subject from 1885 gaze out with that same direct look. Also, I find it so fascinating that the painting captures a sense of Renoir’s painting life at two moments in time, and that he didn’t feel compelled to “update” the 1881 side. I think you gave the people who heard you “ramble on” both pleasure and wonderful insight.

  • Carolyn Goodart

    This was an exciting experience for me to know how personal great art can be for someone. I always feel at a distance from art in a museum and had never thought how one could have an emotional history with art masterpieces. Now I’ll have to go through my memory for similar experiences. I suspect this might be true for myself. It will be fun to think about this.

    • TwointheMiddle

      I so enjoyed reading your comment. I hope you’ll let me know if a painting pops into mind that transports you back to a moment in your life. I didn’t expect to have an emotional response to “The Umbrellas.” I simply thought I was finally having the chance to see one of my favorite paintings, but it was so much more than that.

  • Grandmama

    Thank you for the information with a link to The National Gallery, London. It was a delight and amazing to access so easily the art work and I did find Renoir’s ‘The Umbrellas.’ It was fun finding it. Renoir’s ‘The Hat,’ one of my favorites, which hangs as a reproduction in my house was missing from the Gallery’s collection. I had hopes it’d be there. I will certainly take another Virtual Tour of the paintings at the National Gallery. What a treat and there are 18 galleries with close up inspection possible! Amazing.

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