Great works: Onions (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

It is such a relief to chance upon a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir that we can enjoy quite so unreservedly. His females, nude or clothed, are often so glutted with sweet fleshiness. To see them, and especially when one scrutinises them in quantity, is a little like imbibing a jeroboam of undiluted cherry syrup.

This painting was bought by Sterling and Francine Clark of Chicago in 1922, and of the far too many paintings by Renoir acquired by those great American collectors of Impressionism, it was their absolute favourite. Surprising? Yes. To a degree, it possesses un-Renoir-like qualities. It seems, in the ever-on-the-move, slightly precarious arrangement of its forms, to display a rather uncharacteristic wit and lightsomeness. It could not be more different from Peonies, for example, another still life bought by those same collectors, which was painted just months before this one. Peonies heaves with the weight of the presence of the flowers. They positively flood the eye. It is all rather wonderful in its way. It is also too much with us. Hold back! we find ourselves wanting to shout out loud.

Peonies, though mere flowers, were rather special ones. They had been introduced into the horticultural world of Paris in the 1860s, so there was still something of the exotic about them, and Renoir paints them rather solemnly and majestically. Like the flowers in so many Dutch still lifes of the 17th century, they rise up like a great architectonic structure, imposing themselves upon the air.

Against all that grand and laboured pre-meditation, witness this scene, which is so evidently caught on the wing. These onions, and these bulbs of garlic, are, by comparison, engaged in a kind of play. They do not weigh on us visually. They are jostling together, tilted this way and that as if nodding to each other, heaped up in a chance configuration that will doubtless vanish into thin air as readily as it came. Some greasy-fingered cook will snatch it away. This sense of rush and hurry seems to be accentuated by the blue and yellow diagonal strokes, so rapid, wind-blown and vaporous, of the background.

That coolness helps to throw into sharper relief the glowing, plumpy-in-the-hand warmth of the onions. How the white highlights make their ribbing shine! The fact that so many of these bulbs are sprouting in a rather unruly fashion accentuates the animation – that dance-like, all-pennants-flying, quality – of the scene.

To what can we attribute the lightness of mood that we seem to detect in this painting? Well, Renoir painted it in Naples. The dealer Durand-Ruel had begun to buy his paintings regularly, so he was enjoying a measure of financial freedom. Perhaps the temporary shucking of off the bourgeois atmosphere of Paris also helped to free him up somewhat. The subject matter is commonplace, of the everyday. That may have helped. Renoir may have felt that, for once, he did not need to rise to the painting's occasion.

This bunch of onions and these few strewn cloves of garlic will be forever only their modest selves. And yet how lovingly he attends to them, caressing their rounded forms with his brushstrokes! The arrangement looks so refreshingly provisional, carelessly tumbled out on to the surface of this table – so unlike, for example, so many of the still lifes of Cézanne, which feel deeply calculated and constructed, wonderfully sober cerebral exercises in their way, and brought in to being in order to demonstrate how dramatically different is the kind of still life that he, Cézanne, is capable of painting.

They sit half on and half off a cloth with a blue, red and white border, which is partially rucked – like a wave as it peters in at the shoreline. Everything is forever shifting and shifting about.

About the artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born into a working-class family in Limoges, and moved to Paris in 1845. With the money earned by working for three years as a painter of ceramics in a porcelain factory, he earned enough to fund his entry into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he trained under Monet, Bazille and Sisley. Some were shocked by how lightly he seemed to take his vocation as a painter. "If painting were not a pleasure to me, I should certainly not do it," he once said.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower