Knowing about my art history background, one of the most common questions guests ask me is “what is your favorite painting?” They are clearly expecting me to name one of the great Italian masters, perhaps a Botticelli or Leonardo or Raphael. I have always answered that I loved too many to simply name just one. Last year, a guest insisted, not satisfied with my answer. I told him I would think it over and see him the following morning at breakfast. When I came at 9:00 AM, he was already on the panoramic porch, smiling in anticipation of my”proclamation”.
I held a postcard in my hand, face down, as I announced that I was indeed ready to name a favorite of favorites! I will never forget the surprised facial expression of our guest when I turned the postcard over, proudly showing and sharing, “my favorite is Renoir’s Onions”!
While this painting was purchased by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in 1955, I first saw it there, in Williamstown, MA, in 1987 when I accompanied Mar on a college tour. Because she had an Admissions interview at Williams College, we spent a few days there visiting the campus and the gorgeous area. The highlight of the area, along with the beautiful Williams College campus, was the amazing Clark Art Institute, still today one of my favorite museums (along with the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia) which I rank highly even when compared to many of Europe’s greatest collections.
Each and every time we visited Mar during her four years at Williams, we would spend long, blissful hours at the Collection. Mar even gave concerts with the Williams Collegium Musicum that she directed in the Impressionists’ Room 7 with Renoir, Degas, Monet and other notables looking on!
My particular love affair with humble onions was forged long ago: Mother was eating her favorite red onion sandwich just before I was born. Moreover, I was assigned onions in a fifth grade vegetable-growing school project, winning first prize on my presentation of the experience: I remember standing in front of the class, proudly showing my five onions and describing them as beautiful, intriguing in their tight inner layers and their paper-like outer skin, geometric symmetry, appealing roundness and smoothness, warm golden or burgundy colors. I mentioned their remarkable culinary versatility, how my mother used them in so many different ways in our dinners. I told the class about their amazing taste. I’m sure that experience was fundamental to my passion for onions.
Onions are delicious in so many ways: fried,
in a sweet and sour sauce,
stuffed with an array of ingredients,
as a pizza or a focaccia topping,
Renoir transports the commonplace, humble onions to absolute magnificence, treating the mundane subject matter with a skillful but “casual rigor”:
I love the apparent haphazard arrangement of the onions and the few garlic heads piled loosely on a crumpled, nondescript kitchen linen devoid of embroidery or fancy borders. It is important to know that Renoir painted the “Onions” during a visit to Naples in 1881. Clearly influenced by the bold light of southern Italy, he inundates the entire painting – and literally bathes the subject – in the clearest light. Fluid and rapid brushstrokes define the onions’ round, solid forms and skillfully capture the shiny – almost translucent – papery quality of their thin skins. I am not surprised that Sterling Clark often stated that this was his favorite of the many paintings by Renoir in his collection.
Renoir’s other 1881 painting of Naples focuses on the hustle and bustle of daily life near the chaotic harbor. The scene is full of local flavor—characteristic Neapolitan boats, donkeys loaded with supplies, men and women carrying large baskets of goods on their heads. In the distance, smoke exits the mouth of Vesuvio, an active volcano. Parallel strokes of paint delineate the composition: reds and oranges contrast with the purple and blue shadows as well as with the pastel and creamy white buildings across the Naples Bay.
The long shadows cast by the strong Mediterranean sun bespeak ever so loudly of southern Europe. While worlds apart in many ways, these two 1861 Naples paintings share stylistic similarities: Renoir wrote during his stay in Naples that he felt freed of the expected “classic rigor” that was prevalent in France – that he felt a unique whiff of fresh air in Naples. In the Onions, there is no premeditation of compositional form. Instead, it is as if the subject is portrayed in a happenstance configuration, set in stark contrast against rapid, irregular, diagonal strokes of the coolest hues of light blue and pale yellow. No less important to its form is the Renoir’s use of subtle white and green highlights, loosely dabbled – casually here and there – on the onions’ golden skins.
We have always grown onions and garlic in our vegetable gardens for the sheer pleasure of having our own.
Two locations in Italy are most famous for quality onions: Tropea in Calabria and near-by Cannara in Umbria. Various types of Cannara onions are celebrated in a September Festival in Cannara, our favorite food festival that we never miss. Every dish on the menu has onion in its ingredients, even the amazing desserts.
How I would love to have Renoir’s Onions in my kitchen. Perhaps I should search for a quality print of the Onions to hang in substitution and in celebration of my favorite painting!