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The Rheumatoid Hands of Renoir

Nini in the Garden (1876), Oil on canvas, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Reprinted by permission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the developers of Impressionism. Evolving over the 1860s, as a style of art it emerged from a group of artists who were free-hearted souls. In a meadow awash with poppies, or near a rushing river, they were aesthetes pursuing a form of liberty. Their freedom in a physical sense lay in the glowing outdoors. It was where they chose to paint, in the sun and rain, dabbing away at canvases.

Creatively, too, they yearned for freedom and wanted an escape from precision. Their painting was therefore defined by a sort of inexactness. Without a doubt they had control, but there was a looseness, a refusal to strive for photographic clarity. For the critics, who knew only gloss and refinement, a craft of such rawness was unwelcome. The exhibitions of the 1870s had viewers derisorily calling the method “impressionistic.” They saw rough expression where the intent was free-minded design.

Renoir was among the Frenchmen who were the Impressionists, and his life has intrigue for the physician. Tobacco and alcohol are integral to the creation of art for many artists and, when painting afresh or while rectifying a blemish, the intense man would smoke ounces of tobacco. Cigarettes would have worsened the rheumatoid arthritis that befell him in his 50s. Rheumatoid arthropathy, like other inflammatory lesions, has been linked to smoking. Amid a range of sequelae, nicotine affects T-cell function and likewise alters cytokine profiles, factors that conspire to spark inflammation in the joints.

Without a remedy the arthritis was set to mutilate Renoir’s limbs. Deformed in the fire of inflammation, the disease blazing along, his fingers could no longer move with subtlety. Eventually the paintbrush had to be tied to his warped hand. His hips and knees were similarly savaged, changes in a thin aged body that banished him to the hold of a wheelchair. Sleeping was not any kinder, and to lift the bedcovers away from his aching skeleton a timber frame was duly carpentered.

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-Jagdeep Singh Gandhi, BSc, MB, ChB, MRCS, FRCOphth

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

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