The Glories of Renoir’s Onions

Christopher Benfey writes: ‘Renoir’s group portrait of six onions and two bulbs of garlic, painted in Naples in 1881. In them, one can see in a flash what Meyer Schapiro meant when he called still-life painting part of “a democra-tizing trend in art that gives a positive significance to the everyday world.” And yet, I say Renoir’s portrait of onions because nothing could be less still than this so-called still life—one of the treasures of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts—with its astonishing sense of movement. Their stems interlaced, these onions are

dancing, taking cues from one another as they follow the meandering red and blue stripes of the napkin, or dance floor, that encircles them. There’s a rugged, windswept feel to the picture. I think of the “shucked tunic of an onion” in Richard Wilbur’s marvelous poem “Lying,” which, “brushed / To one side on a backlit chopping-board / And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints / Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.”’

Leave a Comment