Great works: Onions (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Kimbell Art Museum, Texas
Friday 16 August 2013
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.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia