Having worked at the Phillips for over a year, I couldn’t even begin to list all of the questions I get asked about Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Most visitors are curious about what is quite possibly the most famous painting in our collection, Luncheon of the Boating Party. I personally prefer his smaller chalk study, The Judgement of Paris, that currently hangs in a nearby gallery, because it demonstrates just how talented and determined Renoir was as an artist.
You would never know by looking at the works he produced from 1892 until his death in 1919, but Renoir suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis for those last three decades or so of his life. His hands were deformed, his joints severely damaged, and he was wheelchair-bound for most of his later years. He adapted his painting techniques to cope: his children or other assistants held his palettes, placed paintbrushes in his permanently curled fingers, and even moved his canvases underneath his paintbrush so that he could hold his arm still to reduce the pain.
And yet Renoir continued to produce masterpieces. The Musée d’Orsay‘s famous version of The Bathers was completed just before his death, the Phillips’s chalk drawing is from around 1908, and a small bronze also in our collection is from 1916. It is astonishing to think that these amazing pieces were created by a man who was in constant pain and often essentially paralyzed. Jean Renoir, the artist’s son, wrote that “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 video below was filmed in 1915, just four years before Renoir’s death, and shows the painter and his assistants at work in his studio in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Around this time, a young Matisse asked Renoir why he still painted when it was obvious just how much he suffered. Renoir answered thus: “The pain passes but the beauty remains.”
Katherine Luer, Museum Assistant