France 1839 – 1906
Still-life with onions
[Nature morte aux oignons] 1896-98
oil on canvas
canvas 66.0 (h) x 82.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Auguste Pellerin 1929
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
By arranging a composition focusing on a wine bottle, a glass, an array of humble onions (a chief component of many Provençal peasant dishes), a knife to cut them with, and a simple white table cloth, Cézanne has created a celebration of simple country life in his beloved Aix-en-Provence. The table is from the artist’s studio and is one which he frequently used for the base of his compositions. The furniture is cropped and set against a bare wall of daubed plaster, which also emphasises the scene’s rustic air. Gone are the more elaborate earlier arrangements with ornamental drapes or statuettes previously favoured by Cézanne—Still-life with onions is a masterpiece of simplicity.
For Cézanne, the still-life genre was of paramount significance. He delighted in the depiction of objects as if they were living beings, and grappled with the pictorial problems of colour and space. In an account by Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne likened his still-lifes to portraits:
We were talking about portraits. People think a sugar bowl has no physiognomy or soul. But that changes every day here. You have to take them, cajole them, those little fellows. These glasses, these dishes, they talk among themselves. They whisper interminable secrets. I gave up on flowers; they fade too soon. Fruits are more faithful. They love to have their portraits painted. They sit there and apologise for changing colour. Their essence breathes with their perfume. They come to you with all their aromas and tell you about the fields that they left, about the rain that nourished them, about the dawns they watched.1
The tradition of the still-life—so admired by a younger generation of artists, including the Impressionists—was set by the eighteenth-century French artist Jean Siméon Chardin. An 1860 retrospective of Chardin’s work had revived interest in this genre, and inspired the young Cézanne. He was later to comment on Chardin’s importance for the still-life genre and its history:
[Objects] never cease to be alive … they spread themselves out imperceptibly among themselves by intimate reflections, as we do with our gazes and our words. Chardin was the first to see that, he painted the nuanced atmosphere of things.2
Cézanne contributed to the history of this genre in his own extraordinary, subtle way.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- As noted on p. 132, note 1, Gasquet took a fair amount of poetic licence in his reconstructions of his conversations with Cézanne. Quoted in Michael Doran (ed.) and Julia Lawrence Cochran (trans.), Conversations with Cézanne, Berkley: University of California Press 2001, p. 156.
- Doran and Cochran, p. 157.