The “Malady” of Impressionism: How Claims of Disability Haunted the Modernist Movement, Elizabeth Guffey, δημοσίευση Art in America [28/10/2022]Marilena Pateraki
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. Renoir’s son Jean, who later became an acclaimed film director, poignantly described, in his 1962 biography, Renoir, My Father, how people reacted when they encountered the elderly artist. Most were confounded. “It isn’t possible!” they would exclaim. “With hands like that, how can he paint those pictures? There’s some mystery somewhere.”
“Monet had cataracts.” “Degas went blind.” “Renoir was paralyzed.” Indeed, the history of Impressionism is often told as a history of impairment hiding in plain sight. But each time such legends are repeated without carefully considering how disability and ableism shaped both Impressionist art and its reception, we miss the opportunity to place Impressionism within a broader critique of the idea of normalcy itself.
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