You may never look at a painting by Pierre-August Renoir in quite the same way again after seeing this three-minute film. It didn’t show in his artwork, but Renoir suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis during the last three decades of his life. He worked in constant pain, right up until the day he died.
In this rare footage from 1915 we see the 74-year-old master seated at his easel, applying paint to a canvas while his youngest son Claude, 14, stands by to arrange the palette and place the brush in his father’s permanently clenched hand. By the time the film was made Renoir could no longer walk, even with crutches. He depended on others to move him around in a wheelchair. His assistants would scroll large canvases across a custom-made easel, so that the seated painter could reach different areas with his limited arm movements. But there were times when the pain was so bad he was essentially paralyzed. In the book Renoir, My Father, the painter’s famous filmmaker son Jean describes the shock his father’s wasted figure and gnarled hands gave to people who knew him only from his beautiful art:
His hands were terribly deformed. His rheumatism had made the joints stiff and caused the thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and his fingers to bend towards the wrists. Visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity. Though they did not dare to mention it, their reaction would be expressed by some such phrase as “It isn’t possible! With hands like that, how can he paint those pictures? There’s some mystery somewhere.”
The film of Renoir was made by 30-year-old Sacha Guitry, who appears midway through the film sitting down and talking with the artist. Guitry was the son of the famous actor and theatre director Lucien Guitry, and would go on to even greater fame than his father as an actor, filmmaker and playwright. When a group of German intellectuals issued a manifesto after the outbreak of World War I bragging about the superiority of German culture, Guitry was infuriated. As an act of patriotism he decided to make a film of France’s great men and women of the arts. It would be released as Ceux de Chez Nous, or “Those of Our Land.” Guitry and Renoir were already friends, so when the young man embarked on his project he travelled to Renoir’s home at Cagnes-sur-Mer, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. The date was shortly after June 15, 1915, when Renoir’s wife Aline died. In Sacha Guitry: The Last Boulevardier, writer James Harding describes the scene:
The choice of time was unfortunate. That very day Renoir’s wife was to be buried. Sacha went to the old man who sat huddled arthritically in his wheel chair and murmured: ‘It must be terribly painful, Monsieur Renoir, and you have my deepest sympathy.’ ‘Painful?’ he replied, shifting his racked limbs, ‘you bet my foot is painful!’ They pushed him in his chair up to a canvas, and, while Sacha leaned watching over his shoulder, Renoir jabbed at the picture with brushes attached to hands which had captured so much beauty but which now were shrivelled like birds’ claws. The flattering reminder that he was being filmed for posterity had no effect on the man who, on being awarded the cravat of a Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur, had said: ‘How can you expect me to wear a cravat when I never wear a collar?’
Renoir died four years after the film was made, on December 3, 1919. He lived long enough to see some of his paintings installed in the Louvre. When a young Henri Matisse asked the suffering old man why he kept painting, Renoir is said to have replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”