Haven’t we had our fill of national greatness lately, with all the talk of MAGA and military parades? Isn’t something missing from such blatant displays of power and prestige? Emerson, our cultural founding father, thought that the major contribution of the art of his own time was a new understanding of ordinary life. “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic,” he wrote in his address “The American Scholar,” often described as our intellectual declaration of independence. “I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” Instead of the old razzmatazz of heroes and wars, he welcomed a literature “of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life.”
I am reminded of Emerson’s admonition whenever I make a pilgrimage to see one of my favorite paintings in all of New England: 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 democratizing 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.”
To confess a taste for Renoir is a bit like saying that Rembrandt is all well and fine, but hey, what about Rubens? Hip gallery-goers prefer the jaded, wink-wink urbanities of Manet and Degas, those toney men of the world, to the working-class Renoir’s more ordinary pleasures. Renoir never condescends to his lowly onions. When the fashionable John Singer Sargent, by contrast, painted onion-sellers in Venice, around the same time that Renoir was traveling in Italy, he inserted a window view of the sunlit glories of the Grand Canal, as though to say, “Isn’t it wonderful that I am stooping to paint these humble peasant women and their pungent wares?” His friend Henry James noted that Sargent’s brush transformed the onions into “magnified pearls”—pearl onions, maybe.
My mother tacked a postcard of Renoir’s onions in her kitchen, alongside a Morandi, to dignify the domestic drudgery that kept her from painting, her primary love. Renoir’s onions have a solidity, an emphatic there-ness, at odds with what we think of as his customary feathery brush and melting outlines. Renoir went to Italy in 1881 to remake his style, to capture what he called in his letters ancient art’s simplicity and grandeur—presumably a French rendering of the classicist Winckelmann’s motto, edle Einfalt und stille Größe, noble simplicity and calm grandeur. He found it in Raphael’s murals in Rome and then, more movingly, in the frescoes from Pompeii in the National Museum in Naples. Renoir’s still life borrows from those ancient frescoes, finding unexpected grandeur in the shimmering skins of ordinary onions. In her book on Pompeii, Ingrid Rowland writes that Renoir’s crosshatched background has a distressed look, “as if it, too, has undergone the eruption of Vesuvius and spent two millennia underground, whereas the vegetables have been gathered moments before.” The frescoes buried under lava and the alliums buried in dirt are two versions of underground art.
Renoir’s onions are more lifelike than his anemic portrait of Richard Wagner, painted that same winter during a side-trip to Palermo. The feel of performance in the onion painting, its staged and choreographed look, might have something to do with Renoir’s longing, during his Italian journey, to paint the opera composer. The onions could easily be mistaken for Rhine maidens, as in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s later rendering of the subject. (Cézanne, whose sprouted onions, according to Schapiro, are coded male, once told Renoir he painted apples because “women models frighten me.”) Wagner, who was trying to finish Parsifal, delayed the portrait sitting—surely a good excuse! Once it began, he curtailed it, observing testily that Renoir had made him look like a priest. According to Renoir’s son Jean, the filmmaker of Rules of the Game, Wagner spewed anti-Semitic invective. “While I was working,” he quotes his father as saying, “he repeated several times that the French only liked German-Jew music.” Renoir, annoyed, said he happened to like Offenbach, who popularized the can-can. “It is ‘little’ music, but it’s not bad,” Wagner conceded, adding, “If he wasn’t a Jew, Offenbach would be Mozart.”
Could Renoir, a more ambitious writer about art than the other Impressionists, have been drawing on literary traditions with his rendition of onions? His friend Mallarmé has a quatrain titled “The Seller of Garlic and Onions,” a verbal counterpart to Sargent’s painting. One of his Chansons bas, or low songs, the poem pretends to be a street-seller’s appeal. Here is a possible translation: “Social calls are such a bore, / Chew garlic—you’ll be shown the door. / If your elegies are dry, / Chop some onions, then they’ll cry.” Onions, Mallarmé implies, are too low, too bas, for polite society.
In English poetry, high and low are reversed, in a peculiar tradition tracked by the scholar Tom Tashiro. In his fifteenth satire, Juvenal had scoffed at Egyptians for allegedly worshipping onions: “What a holy race (o sanctas gentes) to have such divinities springing up in their gardens.” Sir Walter Raleigh, in an anti-Catholic mood, compared such worship of food to the sacrament of Holy Communion, where Christians munch on their god. John Donne, George Herbert, and Robert Herrick all followed Raleigh’s lead, joking, as Herbert wrote, of anyone “who makes a root his god.” Thus, Tashiro notes, “the lowly onion was touched with divinity and thereby entered into the works of a few great poets.” When Rome seemed less of a threat, onions seemed less ripe for poetry. “Only with the passing of time,” Tashiro concludes, “in the nineteenth century, on the Continent, would the onion again receive the attention of great writers—of the Scandinavians and of the Russians—for whom it became a symbol of the self and would have moral virtues.”
Tashiro is presumably alluding to Grushenka’s parable in The Brothers Karamazov: a guardian angel gives a wicked woman in hell one last chance at salvation. Did she ever do one good deed? Yes, she once gave an onion to a beggar. The angel appeals to God who says, fine, take that onion and yank her out of the lake of fire with it. Other sinners hold onto her feet, hoping for a free ride, but she kicks them off. “I’m the one who’s getting pulled out, not you,” she says. “It’s my onion.” At that very moment, the onion breaks. For some reason, I think of this parable whenever I drive by the Colt Armory, on Interstate 91 in Hartford, with its incongruous onion dome, bright blue and studded with gold stars. It’s my Second Amendment, I imagine someone saying.
My father is clearing his throat, a sure indication that he is being “moved by the spirit,” as Quakers say, to speak. We are sitting, silently, in Clear Creek Meeting, in Richmond, Indiana, circa 1960. I am six years old. My mother is at home, painting. And what comes out of my father’s mouth is a commentary on Peer Gynt’s speech about peeling an onion, one layer at a time. What is my father’s point? That it takes a long time to reach the center of the onion? That there really is no center, only layer after layer after layer? I ask him what he meant—he’s now in his nineties—but he doesn’t remember. And neither do I.