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

By Nancy Huntting

Originally presented in the Terrain Gallery of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street in SoHo, New York City, as part of the historic series “Art Answers the Questions of Your Life!”

“Still Life with Onions” by Paul Cezanne

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] 

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