Astonishing Film of Arthritic Impressionist Painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1915)

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.”

by | Permalink | Comments (23) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (23)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Dana Law says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing. Nev­er give up. Rage against the dying of the light…or paint.
    Does any­one know the music?
    Dana Law
    San Diego,Ca

  • John Lyons says:

    Dana. The music is Chopin. Piano Con­cer­to No 2, sec­ond move­ment.

  • Tom Turner in SF says:

    Who is the pianist, and which orches­tra? This recording/performance sounds bet­ter than the first 5 I found on Youtube. Thanks.

  • The world is more beau­ti­ful because of his work — and it was­n’t easy!!

  • Dana Law says:

    Thank you.

  • Darwin says:

    Flash does­n’t work on mobile devices

  • gloria garcia says:


  • jeff monk says:

    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.

  • Ann Reilly says:

    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

  • carol says:

    We’ve come so far. I also paint. If he could do under those con­di­tions, so can I! Won­der­ful site. Thanks for shar­ing.

  • jamie says:

    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.

  • Fiona Crosbie says:

    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.

  • Kathleen Pottle Brannon says:

    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.

  • Nesrin Shaheen says:

    Won­der­ful film. I also loved the music and won­dered whether you can tell me what it is and by whom? Thank you.

  • Mike Springer says:

    I don’t know who the pianist is, but the music is from the sec­ond move­ment of Chopin’s Piano Con­cer­to No. 2.

  • DrMobasheri says:

    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.

  • Schwanenlied says:

    Won­der­ful video. I could­n’t hold back the tears.

  • Anthony says:

    There’s a fine and beau­ti­ful film now of this peri­od in his life; very well made; just called “Renoir”; French w/english sub­ti­tles.

  • Shelly says:

    The Beau­ty of u00c5u211bu1e70n(u00af‘u2022u2665u2022u00b4u00af)u2665u2022u273f “His tal­ent u00a0and art has trans­formed his com­mon daysu00a0n‘u2022.u00b8(u00af‘u2022u2665u2022u00b4u00af)u00b8.u2022u2665 of pain into a life with mean­ing u00a0worth living.nu2022u273f‘ ‘u2022.u00b8.u2022u00b4 ‘ u2022u273f. u2022u273f His art­ful jour­ney from the cen­ter of his being isu00a0nA heal­ing process from his heart to nur­ture his soul. u00a0One that is always uplift­ing the phys­i­cal body rather than deplet­ing it, and this hap­pens only when he is total­ly con­sumed by the irre­sistible burn­ing pas­sion of his own creation.“nShellyu00a0nu2665u10e6u03e0u20a1u10e6u2665u2665u2665u2665u2665u2665u10e6u03e0u20a1u10e6u2665u2665n(u00af‘u2665u00b4u00af) .u2665.u2022*u00a8‘*u266b.u2022nu00b4*.u00b8.u2022u00b4u2665u00a0nu2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2661u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665u2022.u00b8u00b8u2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2661u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665u2022.u00b8u00b8u2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2661u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665u2022.u00b8u00b8u2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665 u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2661u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2022u2665u2022.u00b8u00b8u2665 u2022.u00b8nu250a . u250a .*u250a .*u250a . .u250a . u250a.u250a . u250a .*u250a.u250a . u250a .*u250a .*u250a . .u250a . u250a.u250a . u250a .*u250anu2606.u2603.nu272fu3000u3000u3000u22c6u3000u3000u3000u2730u3000u3000 u3000u3000u22c6 u3000 u3000 u00b8.u2606u00b4u00af)u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000u272fu00a0nu3000u3000u3000u3000u3000u3000u3000u22c6nu3000 u3000u3000 u3000u2605u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u22c6u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000u272fu3000u3000u3000u22c6u3000u3000u3000 u3000u3000u22c6 u3000 u3000 u3000 u272fnu3000u22c6u3000 u3000 u3000 u2605u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u22c6u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000 u3000u272fu3000nu3000u2730u3000u2736* u00b8 .u272bnu00b8.u2606u00b4u00af)u3000 u3000nu00b8.u2022u00b0*u201du02dcu02dcu201d*u00b0u2022u272bu2764u272bn(u00af‘u2665u00b4u00af)n‘*.u00b8.*u00b4nu00b8.u2749u00b4u00af) u00b8.u2606u00b4u00af)n(u00b8u2749u00b4 (u00b8.u2665u00b4u00b4u00af‘u2022.u00b8u00b8.u2749n…u2606u2022 u2606u2022nu250au250au250anu250au250au2665nu250au2665nu2665u2022n

  • Timothy Terry says:

    Chopin: Piano Con­cer­to No.2 in F minor, Op.21 — 2. Larghet­to
    Valery Gergiev

  • Tom says:

    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

  • Terri says:

    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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.