When Andrew Wyeth died recently, it came as a bit of a shock. Even though he was 91 years old, Wyeth remained energetic and amazingly retained most of his eyesight and dexterity to the very end. It was a much different case for Auguste Renoir. Born February 25, 1841, Renoir struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for approximately the last 25 years of his life, yet never stopped working. I had always heard stories that Renoir needed to strap the brush to his crippled hand in later years. According to a 1997 article in the British Medical Journal by Boonen et al titled “How Renoir coped with rheumatoid arthritis”(registration required), the bandages in photos of Renoir late in life (above) were applied not to hold the brush in place but to absorb the sweat of his hands, which could have led to painful sores if left alone. Unable to hold his palette, Renoir balanced it on his knees, leaving the arrangement of colors onto the palette to assistants. Doctors believe that Renoir’s problems began around the age of 50, progressively worsening until he was unable to walk at all after reaching 70. Yet, despite all these ailments, Renoir continued to paint, and paint beautifully. In fact, the brushwork remained energetic, if slightly shorter, while the colors took on a whole new vibrancy.
In addition to painfully crippled hands, Renoir eventually suffered from ankylosis of his right shoulder that left it virtually paralyzed. Renoir actually was ambidextrous and painted with his left hand after breaking his right arm twice as a younger man, so he attempted to paint with his left hand (above) to compensate for his right shoulder. It’s a testament to just how ambidextrous Renoir actually was that experts can’t distinguish the right-handed Renoirs from the left-handed ones. Even painting with both hands, Renoir’s stiffened body forced to him move as much as possible to reach the canvas. He painted increasingly smaller and smaller sections at a time, slowing down his productivity. Ever inventive, Renoir designed a picture rolling system that scrolled the canvas on wooden slats joined by an old bicycle chain. Renoir cranked the device to move the canvas up and down as he wanted. The paralyzed American painter Chuck Close uses a similar, although much more modernly mechanized system to move his huge canvases around.
For a painter used to painting out of doors, a wheelchair must have seemed an insufferable prison. Fortunately, Renoir’s devoted family and servants helped him move outside when he was well enough to work out of doors. The photo above shows Renoir being carried in a sedan chair in 1917 through the Renoir family’s garden in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Renoir’s burly cook apparently would lift the frail artist in her arms and carry him about. Renoir’s family chauffeur would similarly drive the artist around the nearby countryside in search of new subjects to paint. As much as I’ve always loved Renoir’s work, after I learned of his physical problems and his continued desire to paint, I gained a whole new respect for him as an artist and a person. All of Renoir’s work is so full of joy, but to know just how much pain was endured in the pursuit of that joy makes it all the more jubilant to me. Some great distance runner once said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Renoir felt the pain, but chose not to suffer but to live, and to create.