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The Adopted Artist With Her Head In The Clouds

Anxiety, depression, and the nature of memory intertwine in Andrea Joyce Heimer's unforgettable paintings.

Like many young artists, Andrea Joyce Heimer spent her early twenties stuck in an office job that she didn’t like while she tried to find her creative voice. Unable to afford art school, she was determined to teach herself to paint in a photorealistic manner — the only style she thought could convey the adolescent memories she wanted to depict. But no matter how many instructional books she bought or how hard she tried, she couldn’t master perspective. Eventually, she quit out of frustration.

Andrea Heimer.

Around the same time, Heimer, who had been struggling with anxiety and depression since high school, fell into one of her deepest depressions. She couldn’t get herself out of the house for weeks. “It was like I just hit a wall,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to off myself unless I figure out something to keep me busy.’”

Still surrounded by art supplies, Heimer decided pick up a brush again. This time, however, she wasn’t going to worry about what the painting looked like. She told herself, “I’m just going to do it how it comes out. I’m going to return to childhood where I just draw for the fun of it.”

She ended up painting four pieces. The paintings were all flat, with no shading and the perspective was skewed. But there was something appealing about them. With encouragement from her husband, she reached out to some folk art galleries and received a positive response from the first place she contacted. She was still stuck in a depressive loop, but that positive reply gave her just enough of “a little oomph” to make another painting and then another. Slowly but surely, that momentum built on itself, eventually pulling her out of her dark hole.

Having dispensed with spatial perspective, her paintings are filled with layers of detail, all floating on the same plane

Today, Heimer is a full-time artist, splitting her time between an MFA program in New Hampshire and her home in Washington. Having dispensed with spatial perspective, her paintings are filled with layers of detail, all floating on the same plane. Objects and characters that might otherwise be hidden are brought into view, unveiling the mystery and violence hidden just below the surface of suburban neighborhoods. The effect is akin to Grandma Moses meets David Lynch. In her acrylic world, ordinary rites of passage collide with mystical rituals: cult members argue over wallpaper choices, giant wolves suckle teenage boys, and a devoted husband drinks his wife’s bathwater. At the same time, kids get bowl cuts in the living room, bad boys hang out at the baseball diamond “being dangerous and irresistible,” and girls cultivate crushes that are mythical in scope.

Often only 16 inches by 20 inches, or smaller, her paintings reward viewers who pause for a closer look. Minute patterns on wallpaper and clothing reveal themselves to be cowboys and Indians, thunderstorms and rainbows, or a starry cosmos of planets and comets. These repeated patterns are therapeutic for Heimer. Even when the painting doesn’t aesthetically need the patterning, Heimer needs it. “For someone who has tendencies to overthink things, it’s such a relief to go do something repetitive,” she says. “It’s that meditative process of drawing the same tiny design over and over and over again–you can lose yourself completely for two hours just doing that.” To paint these details, she leans close to the canvas, keeping her face only an inch away from the surface. “I’m sure that’s terrible for my spine,” she says. “But it’s that intimate time spent with that object that breathes more life into it. I miss that when it’s not there.”

It’s that intimate time spent with that object that breathes more life into it.

Heimer began developing a keen eye for detail early on. When she was in third grade, her parents pulled her aside after dinner and told her that she was adopted. Visibly uncomfortable, they kept the conversation short, and didn’t discuss it again. Determined to never be surprised like that again, she became a studious observer of life in her hometown of Great Falls, Montana.

“You’re going along, you have this normal life … and then all of a sudden you find out that your parents aren’t who you think they are,” explains Heimer. “Then that opens a door. You’re like, ‘Okay, well what else isn’t what it seems?’’’

Great Falls sits on the northern Great Plains, surrounded by vast stretches of open prairie. “You can literally find the edge of town and go stand there. There’s nothing beyond it, which is an unnerving thing,” says Heimer. The neighborhood she grew up in, however, felt like a typical suburb. She lived a couple blocks away from her elementary school. There was a park across the street from their house and beyond that a golf course.

Heimer would spend hours riding her bike past the houses, coming up with narratives about the lives inside. “I don’t know if there’s some underlying perversion in me, or something. Maybe it’s a normal tendency. You ride the same route and you start noticing the same people and you wonder, ‘Are their lives like my life?’”

Heimer at work in her studio.

As a goth teenager, she’d go to music shows and sit in the parking lot because she was more interested in listening to people’s conversations than the bands inside. “I would sit in my car a lot with the window down pretending to read a book or something, but really I was listening to the people who were standing next to my car talking,” she says. “Saying it now, I’m like, ‘God, what a weirdo. Just go talk to somebody like a normal person.’”

All those years of listening have turned into a wealth of stories to draw upon — and led to conversations that Heimer could never have predicted as a teen. “The paintings are almost like — this is going to sound so stupid — but I feel like each one has its own personality or its own magnetic force,” she says. “I feel like they’re little people trying to help me along.”

I feel like each [painting] has its own personality or its own magnetic force… like they’re little people trying to help me along.

The lively, diary-like revelations in her paintings seems to help others open up as well. “I don’t know if it’s because a lot of them are very embarrassing, but you would not believe the things that people tell me at openings,” she says. “After a two-minute conversation, they’ll confess something really deep or embarrassing or touching. I wasn’t expecting those interactions, and they make me feel good in a way that nothing else does.”

Heimer has found that these moments of connection give her a sense of buoyancy that helps counteract the weight depression. She is pursuing her MFA in part so that she can teach part-time and make interacting with others a more regular occurrence. “I realized that I was spending eight hours a day alone in the studio painting. That’s not healthy either,” she says. “I totally love being around art students. It’s another magical thing, being around other people who are making things and learning.”

“I don’t want to be super dramatic and be like, ‘It’s given me something to live for,’” says Heimer of her art. “The pace and the momentum of it, I think, help. I still have medication. I do all the stuff that I’m supposed to. But there’s something about that forward momentum. It doesn’t have to come from a painting career. It can be anything that you care about that propels you forward.”

Histories

The Colorful Totems Of Saint Frida Kahlo

Frequently housebound throughout her life, the legendary Mexican painter turned to fashion, curios, and knick-knacks to let her imagination travel as far as her art.

Since her death in 1954, Frida Kahlo has become an international cult icon. During her lifetime, the Mexican artist painted a relatively small number of pieces, only around 200, many of them self-portraits. Today, her likeness appears on a ridiculous range of objects — refrigerator magnets, earrings, swimsuits, bead curtains, socks, oven mitts, iPhone cases.

“Frida’s become Saint Frida, and people want to have a little piece of it, so they have to have a little physical ‘thing’ that has her image on it,” Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera says in a PBS interview. A notorious collector of things, Kahlo likely would have understood her fans’ desire to take home some sort of totem. “I think Frida would have loved it and been amused by it,” says Herrera.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo.

As a girl, Kahlo “dreamed of being a navigator and traveler,” but illness and injury kept her housebound off and on throughout her life, sometimes for months on end. At age six, Kahlo was stricken with polio, and the illness stunted the growth of her right leg. Then, when she was 18, a steel handrail skewered her abdomen in a bus accident. The collision left her with multiple fractures in her spine, pelvis, and her right leg; her right foot was crushed. Complications from this trauma plagued her until the end, leading to some 35 surgeries and debilitating pain.

“Because she was immobile, the world came to her,” her art student Fanny Rabel says in Frida, Herrera’s definitive biography. When friends went on trips, she always asked them to bring back a little souvenir for her. “She loved objects and I think they were a connection with the outside world for her when she was more isolated,” Herrera says in a video for the auction house Christie’s.

Kahlo “dreamed of being a navigator and traveler,” but illness and injury kept her housebound off and on throughout her life…

Kahlo adorned herself and her home with an array of beautiful things — from antique rings and pretty pink hair ribbons to giant papier-mâché skeletons and clay skulls. Kahlo’s curatorial impulses are particularly evident at La Casa Azul (the Blue House). Located in Coyoacán, a southern neighborhood of Mexico City, this is the family home where Kahlo grew up and where she spent the last 13 years of her life. After Kahlo and her husband, the legendary muralist Diego Rivera, moved in the couple turned the house into a veritable museum, filling it with thousands of objects, including Mesoamerican sculptures, Mexican folk art, large earthenware pots, hundreds of ex-votos (small devotional paintings on tin), photographs, handmade jewelry, and more than 300 garments. (Happily, Casa Azul is now the Frida Kahlo Museum, and the rooms look much as they did when the pair lived there.)

For Kahlo, her home and her wardrobe were reflections of herself. And because of that close association, both can tell us something of how she dealt with her many maladies.

A wardrobe of armor

One of the most iconic photos of Frida Kahlo shows her in one of her many vivid outfits.

More than just fashion, clothing was a type of armor for Kahlo, and she donned her vibrant native attire to both assert her nationalist identity and to hide her scars and slight limp. In an era of curve-hugging dresses and pin curls, Kahlo’s embroidered blouses, floor-length skirts, and crown of braids attracted attention — and purportedly stopped traffic when she traveled abroad. Today, she is almost as well known for her iconic sense of style as she is for her artwork. The look she favored most was modeled after the traditional garb of Tehuantepec, an area in southeastern Mexico, where the women are “famous for being stately, beautiful, sensuous, intelligent, brave, and strong,” writes Herrera in her in-depth biography.

The biographer believes that Kahlo’s striking outfits also became “an antidote to isolation” as the years passed. “Even at the end of her life, when she was very ill and received few visitors, she dressed every day as if she were preparing for a fiesta,” says Herrera. The vivid colors of her clothing, the flowers she’d thread into her hair (or have her nieces and friends thread when she was too weak), and her heavy pre-Columbian jade necklaces made “the frail, often bedridden woman feel more magnetic and visible, more emphatically present as a physical object in space.”

Even at the end of her life, when she was very ill and received few visitors, she dressed every day as if she were preparing for a fiesta…

As her health declined, Kahlo’s ensembles and accessories became brighter and increasingly elaborate. In 1953, doctors decided to amputate her right leg below the knee. The decision was a devastating one for Kahlo, but even then she sheathed herself in “an elegant Tehuana dress” before heading to the surgeon. Writes Herrera, her self-decoration “was at once an affirmation of her love of life and a signal of her awareness — and defiance — of pain and death.”

Wild at heart

Kahlo’s father encouraged her to share his curiosity in all things organic — flowers, animals, birds, insects. When she was a child, the two would spend hours at nearby parks, the elder Kahlo painting watercolors while his daughter collected pebbles, insects, and plants. This relationship with the natural environment nurtured and sustained Kahlo later in life as well.

Casa Azul was built around a central courtyard where Kahlo and Diego cultivated a vast botanical collection, including orange and apricot trees, magnolias, gardenias, dahlias, bougainvillea, agave, cactus, and prickly pear.

Frida Kahlo and her pet monkey.

The garden is also where Kahlo’s cherished menagerie roamed, among them her spider monkey Fulang-Chang and a fawn called Granizo. One of her favorite pets was a little parrot named Bonito, who would nuzzle under the blankets with her when she rested in bed. Bonito’s preferred treat was butter. For comic relief, Kahlo would set up obstacle courses of clay pots and bowls for the bird to make his “pigeon-toed way around” before delving into his “buttery reward.”

When she was confined to her home, connecting with nature through her plants and her pets became increasingly important. She would stroll around the garden paths “noticing with loving attention each little flower as it came into bloom, playing with her pack of bald Aztec dogs [Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintles], holding out her hand as a perch for tame doves or for her pet eagle (an osprey), which she named Gertrude Caca Blanca [Gertrude White Shit], because the bird dropped white excrement all over the steps,” says Herrera.

Skeletons not in the closet

Kahlo regularly turned to humor to help her survive life’s arrows. She believed that “suffering — and death — is inevitable,” and “since we each carry the burden of our fate, we must try to make light of it,” says Herrera. She often referred to death by the common Mexican euphemism of “la pelona,” or baldy. And Herrera writes that she “poked fun at la pelona the way a Catholic laughs at Catholicism or a Jew makes Jewish jokes — because death was her companion, her kin.” Or as Kahlo liked to say, “I tease and laugh at death, so that it won’t get the better of me.”

I tease and laugh at death, so that it won’t get the better of me…

The artist revealed her gallows humor in her paintings — which she insisted were full of comedy for those clever enough to spot it — and in her home decor.

Like many Mexicans, she delighted in Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, but her love of the holiday extended throughout the year. Along with indigenous pottery and traditional cookware, the walls of her cheerful yellow kitchen were covered with sugar and clay skulls.

Kahlo shows off one of her many skulls.

She also had a penchant for collecting giant papier-mâché Judas figures. Typically used in festivities on the Saturday before Easter, these effigies take many shapes. Kahlo, however, was particularly fond of the skeletons, and she hung the brightly painted paper bones (some nearly 20 feet tall) throughout her house. One of her favorites, which Diego called her boyfriend, rested on top of her bed’s wooden canopy, and smaller skeletons sometimes hung from its edge. For a party later in her life, she dressed a coterie of these playfully ghoulish characters in her own clothes and had them hung from her bedroom rafters.

A room of her own

Due to complications from polio and other injuries, Kahlo spent time bed-ridden off and on throughout her life.

Not surprisingly, Kahlo’s second-floor bedroom reflected the artist’s inner workings more than any other room. To keep herself company during her many bedridden days, she pasted pictures of family and friends to her headboard, and she painted the names of five of her closest friends in pink on her bedroom wall. A pillow embroidered with the words “Do not forget me, my love” served as a talisman against her deep fear of being neglected.

In a cabinet and a dressing table, she assembled a collection of little things — dolls, dollhouse furniture, toys, miniature glass animals, Mesoamerican idols, jewelry, and assorted baskets and boxes. “She loved to arrange and rearrange them, and she used to say, ‘I’m going to be a little old woman and go around my house fixing up my things,’” writes Herrera.

Kahlo treasured presents, and she tore into them with childlike exuberance. Just as eagerly, she would give things away. She was known to impulsively take off rings and offer them to friends. “If receiving gifts was a way of bringing the world to her, giving was a way of extending herself out into it, and of confirming her relation to other people,” writes Herrera.

I very much love things, life, people…

As her health worsened, Kahlo’s attachment to material things intensified. “Abhorring solitude, as if having no one there or nothing to do would leave a void into which terror would flow, she clung to her connection with the world,” writes Herrera. “I very much love things, life, people,” Kahlo told a friend in 1953.

When she was hospitalized for a year in 1950, Kahlo brought parts of her idiosyncratic collection with her. She decorated the room with sugar skulls (a popular Day of the Day item), a colorful candelabra shaped like the tree of life, white wax-and-paper doves that symbolized peace, and the Russian flag. The decorations surely made the room more welcoming and it was also always full of visitors sharing spicy gossip and dirty jokes. “She did not concentrate on herself,” remembers Rabel. “One did not feel her miseries and conflicts when one was with her. She was full of interest in others and the outside world.”

A ripe life

Kahlo has often been described as a surrealist painter, a label she vehemently rejected. “I never paint dreams or nightmares,” she said. “I paint my own reality.” That reality was frequently shot with pain, but it also flowed with an enduring love of life. She passionately engaged with the world and pulled it close to her. She reveled in the real, in the tangible. And, like religious relics, her cherished objects were imbued with meaning. They were symbols of the people she loved, her political beliefs, and her laughing defiance of death. They were also her way of proclaiming that she was still here. Just eight days before she died, the 47-year-old artist picked up her paintbrush and channeled this spirit into into a still life of juicy red watermelons. In capital letters, she wrote “Viva La Vida” (Long Live Life) across the center slice. Tenacious in all things, Kahlo celebrated life to the end. “It is not worthwhile,” she once said, “to leave this world without having had a little fun in life.”

Profiles

Pinky Fang, The Artist With Different Eyes

Being blind means more than one thing, and It doesn't always mean you can't see.

Megan Ultimate, who works under the alter ego Pinky Fang, is a twenty-nine year old visual artist from Wellington, New Zealand. She is also blind.

Pinky has a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which is slowly stealing her vision and literally changing the way she looks at life.

Writer Sarah Wilson spoke with Pinky about the role blindness plays in her life and work.

Pinky Fang always knew that she was going to be blind. For her, Retinitis Pigmentosa is genetic. Her father has it, as does her uncle, and her grandmother. Pinky was five when she started exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

“There’re actually several hundred different strains of RP,” she tells me. We’re sitting together behind the counter in the record store where Pinky works on the weekends. She’s passionate about music, has been a DJ for bars and charity events, and has an enviable collection at home.

“If you don’t inherit RP, it can happen to you pretty fast,” she continues. “But for me, it’s been a slow decline my whole life. I guess it’s a genetic lottery what type of eyes you get.”

Pinky Fang, whose real name is Megan Ultimate.

Pinky Fang, whose real name is Megan Ultimate.

Although she retains some vision, Pinky is legally blind, and is a member of New Zealand’s Blind Foundation. To be classed legally blind, a person’s field of vision must be less than twenty degrees in diameter. A fully sighted person has 180 degrees.

“When I found that out, I thought, ‘Oh well, I have way more than that.’ I went to an ophthalmologist to get tested, and it turned out I only had six degrees. So that was a big shock. It really hit me then.”

Pinky describes what she sees as “like looking through a cardboard tube.”

“There’s nothing around the outside, I don’t have any peripheral vision. I also have a separate astigmatism that makes the middle bit blurry, but as long as I wear my glasses, that circle in the middle is fine.”

Pinky’s symptoms became more obvious when she was about fifteen.

“The first thing I noticed is I couldn’t see at all at night. Your retina just doesn’t adjust, so I couldn’t see a thing as soon as it got dark. And even during the day, I started bumping into things and falling over.”

Pinky’s always been an artist, and knew early on that art was what she wanted to do with her life.

“I studied some other stuff for a while, but art is part of me. People get confused by how I can be blind and do art. They don’t understand that the word ‘blind,’ doesn’t necessarily mean no vision at all. And even if I was totally blind, I’d still find a way.”

Four years ago, the stress and anxiety associated with not being able to see properly made Pinky realize she needed to reach out for help.

“I started waking up, and another patch of vision would have gone overnight. It was scary.”

It was at that point that she joined the Blind Foundation.

“That was a real change. I’d never used the word “blind” to describe myself before. But they taught me how to use a cane, and introduced me to support services like counseling.”

Pinky was part of the Foundation for three years before she went on the waiting list for a Guide Dog.

It was during her time with her first dog, Penny, that Pinky became an advocate for people learning more about blindness and Guide Dogs.

“I wanted to spread the message that ‘blind doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no vision at all,’ because that lack of understanding can actually make it harder for blind people. It’s difficult when you sit in the grey area.”

She worries about people thinking she’s a fraud, because she can see some things some times, and not others, an inconsistency which is normal for blind people, but one that’s easily misunderstood.

Last year, a bus driver accused Pinky of faking her blindness.

“It was so public, and so humiliating. It got on the news and everything. I tried to use my Blind Foundation card to get my fare on the bus, and the driver laughed at me and said that I wasn’t blind. It was awful. I was so upset, I’m still upset now.”

She’s also an advocate for teaching people how to interact with Guide Dogs.

 

An illustration of Pinky's dog,

An illustration of Pinky’s dog, Penny.

“Other people are not supposed to touch them or even talk to them while they’re working, because it can be really dangerous if they get distracted. But it happens all the time, and it’s really frustrating. It’s not like it’s not obvious; she’s wearing a Guide Dog coat, I’m holding her harness.”

Guide Dogs have at least two years of training before they are matched with a person. Then, a trainer from the Foundation works with the dog and its owner to ensure they can work together.

“My first dog, Penny – we had a rough time. I didn’t really know what I was doing; it was all new to me. People assume that Guide Dogs just know exactly what they’re doing, like they instinctively know where you need to go, and of course they don’t. There is a lot of training involved.”

“They still need you to direct them. If you don’t, they’ll just lead you to the park every time,” Pinky laughs.

Not all dogs are suited to the work, despite the training. Penny was eventually retired to be a pet.

“I was so sad about Penny,” says Pinky. “It was really hard to say goodbye, because I had spent months bonding with her. But it’s not fair to her, if she doesn’t want to work, and it was dangerous for both of us. I have to rely on the dog to keep me safe, and she couldn’t do that.”

After a six-month break, Pinky has just been matched with a new dog, Lyric, who is currently sitting calmly at our feet. Lyric will live with Pinky, stay with her at the record store, and accompany her every day to the art studio she shares with several other women.

Pinky says being blind doesn’t define her work as an artist.

“I kind of prefer that people don’t know I’m blind when they look at my work. I don’t want to be thought of as “that blind artist.” I want my art to be held to the same standard as everyone else’s.

“I don’t want to people to say ‘Oh, that’s really good for a blind person.’ I don’t mind if they know that second, but I don’t want it to be the first thing they think about.”

The Pinky Fang name, along with the Kitty Gang brand she has created, are known up and down the country.

Her art has a distinctive bold, quirky style, and she works in a wide range of disciplines, including drawing, painting, jewelry and textile design.

“I like to insert my sense of humor into my work. Nothing I do is generally too serious or meaningful – I just like to create things that people will find interesting and take some enjoyment from. I like people to laugh or smile when they see my work.”

The studio wall next to her desk features a large-scale mural of multi-colored cats, which are a favorite subject.

“I’ve always been a cat lover,” she laughs. “There’re quite a few people now who have personalized Kitty Gang tattoos, which is amazing – it’s the hugest honor to have people literally wear your work on their skin.”

Being blind influences, but doesn't define Pinky's art.

Being blind influences, but doesn’t define Pinky’s art.

“Do you think that being blind informs your work at all?” I ask. She nods.

“Well, sure. I mean, it’s not a subject I’ve explored much in itself, but it definitely affects the size and mediums I choose to work in. I prefer to do smaller scale stuff as it fits in my line of vision. Although, one of my favorite things to do is larger scale spray paint work. It’s hard with my eyesight, but I just take my time and do it piece by piece.”

Pinky aims to produce at least one new piece every week. She has held several solo exhibitions, and is planning another one for later this year.

I lean back in the chair and look at the dog curled peacefully at our feet. I wonder out loud what Pinky’s plans are for the future. She’s silent for a bit.

“That’s a really hard question,” she says. “I don’t want to fight against what’s happening. There’s no way of knowing when my vision will go completely, it’s different for everyone. So I just want to go with it. And I just hope that whatever I end up doing, it’s creative.”

Histories

Renoir’s Radiant Brush

The impressionist painter completed nearly 400 paintings after rheumatoid arthritis deformed his hands.

The impressionist painter completed nearly 400 paintings after rheumatoid arthritis deformed his hands

In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting, “The Bathers” (“Les Baigneuses”), two young women lounge in the foreground. They are round and relaxed, all rosy curves and pink flesh on a bed of grass and blossoms. Flushed red with health, their lips and cheeks, are redolent of vigorous activity despite their reclining postures. The piece is vibrant and sensual, filled with bright strokes of purple, yellow, green, and blue. Henri Matisse proclaimed it a masterpiece, stating it was “one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted.”

Renoir worked on the piece from 1918 to 1919, the year of his death at age 78. At the time, his own body sat in bony contrast to his canvas’ supple subjects. For the previous 25 years, the influential artist and founding member of the Impressionist movement had been suffering the progressively debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes a person’s immune system to mistakenly attack his or her own body’s tissues. Over the course of the disease, the synovial tissue lining the joints thickens, which leads to painful swelling. If the inflammation goes unchecked, bone erosion and joint deformity occur. By the time Renoir completed “The Bathers,” rheumatoid arthritis had reduced his hands to tight fists, like knobby wounds left on a pruned tree trunk. He hadn’t walked in about seven years, and his frail frame weighed no more than 100 pounds. In the face of these physical afflictions, the prodigious painter continued to work. He created more than 400 pieces after the disease had deformed his fingers, adding to a lifetime total of around 4,000 paintings.

 

Just as his doctors recommended, Renoir went for walks (first with one cane, and then with two), but as a painter, he knew it was his hands that he needed to keep agile. He began juggling wooden sticks for ten minutes every day before heading to his studio. He and his wife Aline started playing billiards because he believed the game helped keep him flexible by encouraging him to bend into unusual postures. And he practiced bilboquet, a tricky French game, similar to cup-and-ball, which involves using the pointed end of a wooden stick to catch a ball with a hole in it.

Despite his hopes and efforts, in 1903, the disorder turned aggressive — eventually misshaping his hands, feet, and legs. His thumbs began to bend toward his palms and his fingers curled toward his wrists. By 1912, he could no longer walk. But as the disease advanced, he adapted. “The more intolerable his suffering became, the more Renoir painted,” recalled Jean in his memoir Renoir, My Father. When gnarled hands kept him from gripping his palette, he had it fixed to the arm of his wheelchair. When he couldn’t pick up his brushes, he had someone (often his youngest son, Claude or a model) wedge it between his index finger and his middle finger.

No longer able to stand and with limited range of motion in his shoulders, Renoir could only paint within a one-foot-by-one-foot area for the last several years of his life. He devised a custom-made easel, or “moving canvas,” which allowed him to continue working on large paintings. The system involved to two cylinders, one near the ground and one seven feet above, linked together by his old bicycle chain. By turning a crank on the bottom cylinder, his assistants could scroll the canvas in either direction. “The Bathers,” which measures around five feet by three and a half feet, was painted this way.

His physical deterioration made him a slower, but no less precise, painter. Once, when an art dealer was watching him paint with his clenched fists, he remarked, “You see, you don’t even need a hand for painting!” A silent film clip from 1915 by Sacha Guitry captures just how active Renoir was in front of a canvas — even when his fingers were all but paralyzed. His eyes, which he once described as “cow eyes,” sparkle even in black and white. With Claude at his side, he takes a drag off his ever-present cigarette, and then trades his son the cigarette for his brush. He leans in and the paintbrush dances across the canvas. Then he pulls back, squints at his work, and dives back in before pausing to chat with the filmmaker.

 

In a letter to his friend and art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Renoir described his physical pain as “unbearable, especially at night,” and said he painted to “forget my sufferings.” Warm weather seemed to provide some relief, and in Renoir’s last decade, the family moved to an estate in Cagnes-sur-Mer along France’s southeastern coast. Here, Renoir’s days began and ended in agony, but he found joy painting under the Mediterranean sun. Jean recalled his father’s time spent outside in front of the easel: “He smiled and winked, as he called us to witness this conspiracy which had just been arranged between the grass, the olive trees, the model, and himself,” recalled Jean. “After a minute or two, he would start humming. And a day of happiness would begin for Renoir, a day as wonderful as the one that preceded it, and the one which was to follow.”

Henri Matisse, who visited the aged master several times at the estate, observed “as his body dwindled, the soul in him seemed to grow stronger continually and express itself with more radiant ease.” On one of his visits, he asked Renoir, why he continued to paint in his arthritic condition. “The pain passes, Matisse,” he replied, “but the beauty remains.”