François Daulte will include this painting in the forthcoming volume V (Les natures mortes) of his Renoir catalogue raisonné.
Still-life occupies a prominent position in Renoir's late work. The most "academic" of the Impressionists, Renoir is largely remembered as a painter of the female figure. Although he recommended to Manet's niece Julie in the late 1890s to paint still-life "in order to teach yourself to paint quickly" (quoted in J. Manet, Journal, 1893-1899, Paris, no date, p. 190), the numerous works which Renoir executed in this genre over the course of his career attest to his sustained interest in still-life as an end in itself. Indeed, it was often in the genre of still-life that Renoir pursued his formal investigation of the changing effects of light, tone and color on objects.
Nature morte à la grenade is a typically subtle, albeit enticing, work of the late 1890s. Forms are carefully measured and evenly distributed in the center of the composition, pointing to Renoir's return to the classical tradition in the 1880s and to his desire for greater structure in his art. Renoir had studied Roman wall painting during his trip to Italy in 1881, and the effects of his dialogue with ancient art are visible well into the 1890s. Here, six pomegranates are nestled snugly in a rippled porcelain bowl, a study in contrasts of hue and tone. With the characteristic voluptuousness that distinguishes his paintings of the female nude en plein-air, Renoir delights in defining the deep crevices between objects fit tightly together, and the undulating rhythms of their irregular geometry. To the extent that the objects are decidedly seductive, they may be considered surrogates for the human body. (Note, for example, how Renoir excavates a section of one pomegranate to reveal its succulent interior.) If still-life is an exhortation to the sense of taste and smell, Renoir also seems to associate sight with touch and physical proximity in this mature--dare we say "ripe"?--work of the 1890s.
In implying a symbolic link between object and body, Renoir worked in good company. Meyer Schapiro was the first art historian to examine the presence of corporeal metaphors in Cézanne's still lifes (M. Schapiro, "The Apples of Cézanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still-Life," Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers, New York, 1978). Cézanne's almost contemporary Pommes et oranges of circa 1899 (fig. 1) provides an instructive comparison with the present work, the seductive appeal of Renoir's still-life transformed by Cézanne into a turbulent, unresolved psychic drama in which forms are scattered and dispersed. In contrast, Renoir seems to have looked to Chardin for a model of graceful composure in still-life (fig. 2). Charles Sterling aptly described Renoir's dialogue with the master of French still-life painting:
Nurtured on the traditions of 18th-century French painting, Renoir made no attempt to energize his composition, as Monet did, but carried on the serene simplicity of Chardin... The main pictorial problem is the play of light over the tinted down of the fruit... Pale shadows, light as a breath of air, faintly ripple across the perishable jewel of the skin of a ripe fruit. Renoir reconciles extreme discretion with extreme richness, and his full-bodied density is made up, it would seem, of colored air. This is a lyrical idiom hitherto unknown in still life, even in those of Chardin. Between these objects and us there floats a luminous haze through which we distinguish them, tenderly united in a subdued shimmer of light. (C. Sterling, Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present Time, Paris, 1959, p. 100)
(fig. 1) Paul C©zanne, Pommes et oranges, circa 1899
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
(fig. 2) Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Panier de prunes avec noix, groseilles et cerises, circa 1765
Chrysler Museum, Norfolk