The “Malady” of Impressionism: How Claims of Disability Haunted the Modernist Movement

Monet: Le Pont d’Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, 23¾ by 31½ inches.COURTESY MUSÉE D’ORSAY

In 1914, the Austrian actress Tilla Durieux was driven from Berlin to Paris some 15 times to sit for a portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. In the resulting painting, Durieux looks serenely grave, fixing her gaze somewhere outside its shimmer of rose and honeyed tones. Writing years later, she described the severely arthritic artist. As he was wheeled into the room by a nurse, Durieux was “flabbergasted” by Renoir’s hands. His right, she noted, had been frozen by the arthritis in the gesture of holding a paintbrush; the left was contorted in such a way that it perfectly held a palette.

A contemporary photograph confirms her account. Seemingly small and hunched, Renoir sits in his wheelchair, tightly grasping a paint brush in a twisted, clenched fist. The artist’s friend Albert André revealed that visitors watching Renoir paint would insist that his brush was actually attached to his fingers.

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