Reflections on fall and Renoir’s Peonies

Rijul Jain

You don’t need me to tell you how lovely the fall season is at the College. We can all see it with our own eyes — but there’s a catch! During the perpetual motion of the semester, we barely get a chance to stop and observe fall in action, as red encroaches on green and the College changes color. We’re pleasantly surprised when we do glance up every once in a while and find that the landscape looks different. (For example, those really picturesque trees by West — I feel like they flicked their “fall” switch on overnight.) 

An awareness of the season as a process of decay, a lead-in to winter — where nature is silent and dormant — also accompanies that delightful moment of surprise at the vibrancy of fall. Fall is a unique transition — it’s the beginning of the end of the year, and it resonates with us partly because it parallels our surprise at how fast our semesters can sometimes go. (We’re basically one-third of the way through already!) For me, the essence of fall is capturing and cherishing the last brilliant flare of life in the nature around us at a critical moment of change. 

There’s a painting at the Clark Art Institute, Renoir’s Peonies, that mirrors the experience of fall on campus — the jolt of recognizing something formerly familiar as transformed in a waning, yet wonderful way. I’m particularly unqualified to speak about or analyze art — I can’t recall visiting a single art museum in the few years before I came to the College — but nothing compares to the power of Peonies for me. Even if paintings of flowers can’t capture everything about real flowers, Peonies’ most immediately enchanting aspect to me is simply seeing such a boldly painted work in the third dimension — colorful and vibrant in a way that JPEGs made of flat pixels could never capture. 

The painting’s enduring importance to me lies in that boldness. The overwhelming feeling that the image is jumping out at you makes it feel as if the artist — with the painful consciousness that attempting to depict these vivid flowers would render them not lively, but frozen on the canvas — insisted on their liveliness with an explosion of movement and exaggerated color. Fall, in a similarly celebratory way, throws up a kind of rebellion against the stark turn from summer to winter with its own dazzling show of dropping leaves and attention-demanding hues. 

Last year, my first time experiencing a New England autumn, I saw the season as if it were an image, akin to the brochures and the pictures of the College I’d seen before coming here. The giant red-orange vista provided by Paresky’s second-floor windows — one of my clearest memories of last fall — was particularly beautiful, but I now realize it wasn’t quite real for me. By the time I encountered Peonies, I’d gazed so often through mediating frames — seasons changing through the windows, works of art admired through phone screens — that my amazement, my incredulity at actually being there, right in front of the painting, took a profound hold over me. 

My continual astonishment with the thereness of Peonies has helped me look at fall in a novel way. It’s not a picture anymore; it’s something more real that I can go right up to and touch. It’s not just the visual and ritual trappings of colors, cider, and pumpkins, but the most expressive transformation of natural life in the Berkshires. 

So, please, go look at this painting! Walk on over to the Clark and make your way slowly past the lovely Winslow Homers and George Innesses. Stay for a while at the far left corner of the big impressionist paintings room, taking in the wonder of Renoir’s Peonies. Maybe it’ll make you see fall differently. 

Rijul Jain ’25 is from San Jose, Calif.