On a Still Life by Paul Cézanne

Wonder & the Everyday; or, Cézanne’s Still Life with Onions

By Nancy Huntting

Cézanne, Still Life with Onions
I love Still Life with Onions by Paul Cézanne, and I am grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that it answers a central question of my life and most people’s lives: I did not see wonder in the everyday things around me; I thought familiar objects were mundane. Here we see vegetables and domestic objects, like those I have used and put away without much thought. Cézanne found a meaning in them people all over the world have been stirred by.

I thought, as many people secretly do, that I was the most wonderful thing. I preferred my daydreams and broodings to the demands of the everyday world around me. But I also felt dull and stuck within myself. I learned this wonderful and also urgent fact: Art can teach us how to have the emotions we most want in our lives. In “The Organization of Self,” a chapter of Self and World, Eli Siegel explains that people separate the wonderful from the matter-of-fact, and he writes:

When Cézanne paints a common fruit he does not add to that fruit qualities which the fruit does not possess; he sees the fruit accurately—with unrelenting accuracy; nevertheless, through his accuracy a something beyond the fruit, a wonder beyond the vegetable is presented. Familiarity and wonder must be, and have been present in all true aesthetics.   [Self and World, Definition Press, NY, pp. 136-137] 

The wonder Cézanne found, I learned, is the fact Mr. Siegel explained—that the structure of the whole world is in every object, the oneness of opposites, which is our structure, too. Studying how this is so has ended the boredom and weariness I once felt.

Each object in this painting, each onion, has its own particular shape, definite and contained—yet every object, the curve of every onion, meets and joins the other objects; the colors change and continue; energetic, disorderly green and brown shoots come forth form the onions almost as if they were feeling out their relation to each other and the tablecloth and space. This is a “still life”—yet how much in motion it is! In the midst of the hubbub of onions, there’s a white cloth that’s spilling over the edge of the table. The verticals of bottle and glass seem to arrest the motion—yet, with the diagonal line of the knife, they form a rough triangle that points the way of the motion to the right.

In my life I didn’t like confusion and bustle—I wanted peace and calm. I liked my antique store because things didn’t move and bother me! I’ll never forget being asked in an Aesthetic Realism consultation if I was a “meaning robber.” Yes, I was. I didn’t see that shapes, colors, the relations of objects had energy. Cézanne sees the wonder in the relation of rest and motion in familiar things.

The upright bottle is a staunch sentinel over this unruly bunch of vegetables. Yet closely examined, its outline wavers, blurs with the air. The rim of the glass literally vanishes into air, mysteriously, as it reveals, blends with and changes the onion behind it. I learned my notions of mystery and romance—such as dim lighting and a cozy two-some away from nearly everything—actually made for boredom, because these notions arose from a desire to contemptuously manage and dismiss other people and objects. Cézanne saw the true wonder of how things meet in this painting—how matter and space become each other.

As an example of Cézanne’s beautiful justice to objects, look at the foremost onion on the dish.

Cézanne wants to give this onion its full existence, its full depth and weight. This is what we want and need to give to other objects and to people. Through brushstrokes that look so spontaneous and rough, yet are so careful and delicate, Cézanne builds subtle layers, from vivid red-orange to a luminous pinkish-white. We feel the depth of this onion is tangibly there, as its surface radiates with light. We see the outline of this onion indicated on the right, yet through the colors within we feel a continuation of that roundness of shape in every bit of surface, until on the left it seems there is no outline at all, just color as form. It is breathtaking.

Cézanne, Still Life with Onions
Meanwhile, it is more beautiful through its relation to all the other onions, the white dish and tablecloth, the dark knife, glass and bottle—and it brings out their beauty in return.

Everyone can learn from Aesthetic Realism what Cézanne shows through these objects: that seeing how we have the structure of the world in common with everything and every person will make us energetic, alive. I am so grateful this happened to me.

From “Art Answers the Questions of Your Life”—art talks at the Terrain Gallery in New York City, based on the landmark principle stated by Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”