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Renoir: Portrait of Perseverance

Famous Nineteenth Century French Artist Had Crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis


Updated May 26, 2014

"For me a picture has to be something pleasant, delightful, and pretty - yes, pretty. There are enough unpleasant things in the world without us producing even more." ~ Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, famous nineteenth century French artist, had nearly 60 years of active life as an artist, during which he is said to have painted about 6,000 pictures. Anyone who has taken an art class or toured an art museum has encountered some portion of Renoir's impressionistic works.

It is not commonly known Renoir battled severe rheumatoid arthritis and fought to overcome the disease so he could continue creating his masterpieces. Though at times he suffered greatly and the disease became crippling, he continued to persevere through his work.

Renoir was born in 1841 and died in 1919. The last three decades of his life allowed Renoir to be recognized, triumphant, and financially successful with his art, but it also met with the fate of serious illness.

Crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis

Around 1898, if not before, Renoir suffered his first severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis. It forced him to spend the winter months in the south of France, in Provence, and to seek medical treatment in the summer months. During the next several years, he experienced bouts of illness and bouts of improved health. It was not long though before the rheumatoid arthritis became excruciatingly painful and gave him more trouble. His joints became deformed and his skin dried up.

In 1904, Renoir weighed only 105 pounds and was barely able to sit. By 1910 he could not even walk using crutches and became a prisoner in his wheelchair. His hands were completely deformed, like claws of a bird. A gauze bandage was used to prevent his fingernails from growing into the flesh. Renoir was unable to pick up a paintbrush at this point and it had to be wedged between his fingers. He continued to paint everyday unless an attack of arthritis forced him to lie on his bed where a wire construction protected his body from being touched by his bedclothes.

Adapting to Change

"One must from time to time attempt things that are beyond one's capacity." ~ Pierre-Auguste Renoir

There were episodes when Renoir was completely paralyzed. He would allow the attack to subside, then continue where he left off at his easel. Renoir had an easel where each canvas could be rolled up like a woven product in a loom. Therefore he could cope with larger formats even though he had to sit in his wheelchair and could only move his arm in short, sudden motions to thrust the paintbrush forward. Renoir said once to an art dealer who was observing him paint, "You see, you don't even need a hand for painting!"

In 1912, another attack of rheumatoid arthritis left Renoir's arms paralyzed and left him unable to paint. Renoir took up sculpture but used somebody else's hands to form the clay according to his instructions. Sculptures were created which had never been touched by Renoir's hands but are works that came from his mind. Renoir would direct his assistant to "take a little more off there" or "make it rounder" until he was pleased with how the piece looked. By 1915, Renoir was carried to his easel every morning. Revived by his work, he was able to create paintings once again in the few years before his death.

Joyous Works

“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” ~ Pierre-Auguste Renoir

It has been said that although Renoir was old, sick, and decrepit there was never any despair or weariness in his art. He never allowed it to be invaded by feelings of envy or anger towards those in good health. The hundreds of works he produced during the last few years of his life were an ode to happiness and joy.

Related Resources

More on Renoir:


Renoir, by Peter H. Feist

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