The case with which one could reach Chatou following the construction o the railroad in 1837 contributed to the rapid rise in popularity of boating along the Seine from Argenteuil to Bougival. The Fournaise family, Alphonse Fournaise (1823-1905) was born to a family of bargemen bases in Chatou. In his early youth he worked for a cousin, a boat wrecker and wood merchant on the island of Chatou. In 1857 he took over the business and the house (built in 1844) and took full advantage of the boating craze. The restaurant was opened in 1860. As his business continued to grow, Alphonse added several additions over the following years, and in 1877 the famous balcony was built, along with the terrace beneath it. Madame Fournaise oversaw the kitchen, Alphonse père looked after the building of the boats, and also, organized boating festivals. He was nicknamed "the Admiral of Chatou". Alphonse fils (1848-1910) was charged with hiring and maintaining the boats. His sister Alphonsine (1846-1937) was one of the great lures of the house : She was famous for her beauty, her charm and the warmth of her welcome.
The painters and writers in Chatou.
The Maison Fournaise became a gathering place of painters, writers, politicians and bankers. "Anyone who was anyone in art, letters, or theatre in Paris went here". The impressionists, lovers of the open air, found on the island the light ant its reflection on the water that they were seeking. Whistler, Caillebotte, Degas and his friend Lepic, A. Gaultier, Leloir, Heilbuth and many more lesser known artists became regulars. Renoir was a frequent visitor of the Maison Fournaise between 1868 and 1884. He painted a number of paintings there, including some of the Seine at Chatou and its bridges, of boaters, numerous versions of Alphonsine, and of her father. He had his friends pose on the restaurant's balcony for what would become one of this most famous paintings : The Boating Party. In this picture we find Alphonse Fournaise fils, his sister, the future Mrs Renoir, etc… Maurice Realier-Dumas (1860-1928), a young local painter, joined the gathering of artists in Chatou. His stay became an idyll that lasted until this death. He became involved with Alphonsine. He painted The Four Seasons of Life on the restaurant's exterior walls, which has been fully restored today. Many of the artists decorated the walls of the balcony, the terrace and the room of the restaurant on the first floor. Amongst the writers was Guy de Maupassant. He had a great love of boating at Chatou, and he frequently stayed at the Maison Fournaise between 1873 and 1890. He dubbed it Le Restaurant Grillon in his short story La femme de Paul. In his stories Mouche, Sur l'Eau, Essai d'Amour, and Yvette, he admirably described the Seine, with its boating and its wildlife. He left us a poem on one of the restaurant's walls, and this has been fully restored today. But fashions change, and around the turn of the century cycling draw people away from boating. In 1900. Vlaminck and Derain set themselves up nearby in a run-down room in the Levanneur restaurant. Matisse and Apollinaire would visit them there, as would the great couturier Paul Poiret. He wrote "I would escape to Chatou whenever I had a moment's rest". He became one of the pillars of the nautical club founded in 1902 and run by some friends of his based of Chatou, the Monnot brothers. Alphonse fils continued running the boat business until his death in 1910. Alphonsine closed the restaurant in 1906. She passed away in 1937 at 91 years of age. She bequeathed her house to some cousins who had another restaurant and boathouse ont the banks of Rueil.
The Maison Fournaise today
The Maison Fournaise was sold in 1953. It was divided into thirteen shabby apartments, and the building gradually became very run down. To save it, the town of Chatou voted to acquire it in 1979. A major press campaign was launched and the greater part of the building's facades were added to the state's register of historic buildings in June 1982. Then, from 1984 to 1990 the town of Chatou restored the building section by section. Official contributors, as well as various benefactors such as the Friends of la Maison Fournaise and many others, the municipality of Chatou at this task. Today the facades look as they did during the restaurant's golden age around 1880*. The murals of the exterior wall and in the restaurant's main dining room** were restaured or reproduced as closely as possible to their originals. The restaurant was reopened in 1990. A municipal museum was also opened in 1992 to perpetuate the historical importance of the site.
(*) The balcony was restored with the help of the Friends of French Art association headquartered in Los Angeles.
(**) These works were carried out with the support of the Credit Agricole of Ile-de-France