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.”
Fascinating. Never give up. Rage against the dying of the light…or paint.
Does anyone know the music?
Dana. The music is Chopin. Piano Concerto No 2, second movement.
Who is the pianist, and which orchestra? This recording/performance sounds better than the first 5 I found on Youtube. Thanks.
Don’t know who this performance is, but try Janina Fialkowska – she’s on ytb…
The world is more beautiful because of his work — and it wasn’t easy!!
Flash doesn’t work on mobile devices
There is something about these clips…all of them…that evokes the feeling of a distant past that still lives on, somewhere, out in the mist of almost reality. Amid the chaos of our culture and century, I can imagine, somewhere, real or perhaps imagined, a place where these artists still exist. They didn’t really die, they only moved on to that other plane, to live with others like them and they may even be allowing a slight mist of genius, calmness and grace to shower down upon us from beyond – we poor souls that endeavour to make a way through these troubled times. Art must exist for civility to prosper.
Thank you for making us see the man who created such beauty and to know the pain he endured to insure it lived on. Ann
We’ve come so far. I also paint. If he could do under those conditions, so can I! Wonderful site. Thanks for sharing.
I have severe RA that isn’t controlled yet. What a great reminder that life, even with limits, is worth fighting for. The film is also a reminder that so much of what we accomplish is possible because of the support of the people closest to us.
An amazing film and very humbling. My friend’s mum is in her 80’s and has painted all her life. She now has advanced Parkinsons Disease and her life is becoming more and more limited, however she gets up every morning at 5 to paint, and when she holds a paintbrush her hand stops trembling. She is more prolific now than she’s ever been.
Thank you for this rare glimpse of Renoir’s personal reality. Might I ask if it is not possible to slow the film down in frames per second so that it approximates real time? The speeded-up jerkiness is terribly offputting and obscures the poignancy of the footage.
Wonderful film. I also loved the music and wondered whether you can tell me what it is and by whom? Thank you.
I don’t know who the pianist is, but the music is from the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
With all of the said disabilities, he created all of those masterpieces. Perhaps, one of his other masterworks was at 74 he was fathered to a 14 years old son, that itself is another masterpiece.
Wonderful video. I couldn’t hold back the tears.
There’s a fine and beautiful film now of this period in his life; very well made; just called “Renoir”; French w/english subtitles.
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Chopin: Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21 – 2. Larghetto
Kind of strange that most in here are talking about the piano music, when the video is about a PAINTER. Do folks have such a short attention span these days? o_0
In response to the question ‘Do folks have a short attention span?’ I’d say yes, from my point of view. I find Renoir to be dry and a painter who painted to a tight remit.
It’s difficult to see any room for experimentalism and I don’t like that. I believe every artist/writer/creative should, to some extent, explore new horizons. It’s all part of being associated with a ‘movement’. His subjects are more superficial than most and his best work [IMHO], is seen in his portraiture. I certainly don’t believe that he mixed no more than five colours, as he had previously claimed. I realise other artists have made the same dodgy claims – L.S. Lowry in a case in point – but Renoir lacks the imagination of painters like Manet, Van Gogh [probably an impressionist also], and Francis Bacon. Renoir plays safe in his work and the resulting effect can be dry, at least for me it is.
I do admire his courage and persistence in facing the awful rheumatoid arthritis. Having worked with someone who had the condition I can understand how debilitating it can be. Good for Renoir that he was able to continue.
Also, I appreciated the ‘Boating Party’ item and a handful of others, but for nothing more than aesthetic reasons. Not so many marks for imagination into new realms, especially so for a painter who was in the spotlight for so long. He’s not for me.