Mary Cassatt, 1844–1926

September 7, 2017 by richard

CASSATT, MARY (1844 – 1926)

Who was Mary Cassatt?

Born on May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now a part of Pittsburgh), Mary Cassatt was a remarkable woman who succeeded in what was then a predominantly male profession. The daughter of a wealthy investment banker, her family was close, and she was brought up to be independent and pursue her own interests. Cassatt lived with her family in France and Germany, where from 1850-55 she spent long periods of time in Paris, Heidleburg, and Darmstadt. In 1855, the Cassatts returned to Philadelphia. In 1861, at the age of 16, Cassatt enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting

On January 1, 1866, Mary Cassatt traveled to France to further her study of painting. She eventually settled in Paris, where she took private lessons. It was during this time that Cassatt became aware of and interested in the work of the Impressionists, and in particular that of Edgar Degas. Cassatt was skilled at drawing, and she paid particular attention to form and line in her paintings. Degas, who was known to be blunt and caustic in his opinions towards women, said of Cassatt, “I am not willing to admit that a woman can draw that well.”

Degas invited Cassatt to exhibit her works with the Impressionists in 1877. She was the only American artist ever to do so. She took part in Impressionist exhibitions on four subsequent occasions. After the last exhibition with the Impressionists, she began a professional affiliation with Paul Durand-Ruel and displayed many solo exhibitions in his galleries. Cassatt is best known for her representation of women’s experience, and had a particular focus on the relationship of mother and child. Her work displays the private activities of women, including knitting, reading, taking tea, and interacting with children. In the early years, Cassatt worked primarily in oil, but in the 1890s began to experiment with pastels and printmaking.

Although decidedly a member of the Impressionist circle, Cassatt focused more on form and detail than did such contemporaries as Monet, who was mainly concerned with light and atmosphere. In fact, some of Monet’s work didn’t impress her at all. She wrote, “Rene went to see Monet and found him at work on large panels of water lilies. One would have to build a room especially for them I suppose. I must say his Nemphes [Les Nympheas] pictures look to me like glorified wall paper. You have some of the best work. I won’t go so far as D. who thinks he has done nothing worth doing for 20 years, but it is certain that these decorations without composition are not to my taste.” – from letter to long-time friend Louisine Havemeyer, Sept. 8, 1918.

Cassatt was witty, elegant, and while socially skilled, she loved solitude. Typical for the day, most of her close friends were women. She was, however, also good friends with Degas and her male art teachers. She was avidly interested in politics and literature and her letters contain many literary references. She was never married, career success being more important to her. She was plagued by serious visual health problems in her later years that affected both her art and quality of life. She died on June 14, 1926 in her French Chateau at the age of 81.


Cassatt’s visual disorders: Cataracts & diabetic retinopathy

Cassatt’s visual problems began in 1900, at age 56. Her acuity began to decline, and she reported her sight to be getting progressively dimmer. In 1910, she relinquished printmaking due to these difficulties. In 1912, at age 68, she was diagnosed with cataracts by the famous ophthalmologist, Edmond Landolt, M.D., who had earlier treated Degas. Unfortunately no records survive. Cassatt visual problems were exacerbated by lack of care, as it was difficult to find doctors to treat civilians during WWI. By 1915, at the age of 71, Cassatt was forced to give up her work. Cassatt was diagnosed with diabetes around 1919 and experienced a concurrent retinopathy.

Cassatt’s visual decline had tremendous impact on her psychological well-being. Her problems, which she attributed to painting, shortened her artistic career. In a letter to her good friend Louisine Havemeyer in 1913, she wrote, “I have overlooked my bodily welfare, but I have worked so hard besides, and nothing takes it out of one like painting. I have only to look around me to see that, to see Degas a mere wreck, and Renoir and Monet too.” Wartime conditions also seemed to be taking their toll. Cassatt wrote, “Since I saw you last, I have been so ill, no one thought I would recover – but I did, and then I overworked and when the war cloud burst, I broke down under my responsibilities & it has taken me all winter to get well again, – & my sight is enfeebled.” – from letter to Theodate Pope, June 8, 1915 (Villa Angeletto).


Treatment: Cataracts
In 1917, Cassatt had a cataract operation on her right eye. She subsequently experienced opacity of the posterior lens capsule in the same eye, worsening her already diminished sight. Cassatt dreaded the forthcoming operation on her left eye. On May 24, 1919 she wrote, “My sight is getting dimmer every day. I find writing tires my eyes. I look forward with horror to utter darkness and then an operation which may end in as great a failure as the last one.” Cassatt’s premonitions proved correct; poor results were obtained when the left eye was operated on in 1919 when she was 75. Cassatt was greatly distressed; she could not read, could not paint, and was suffering from the effects of diabetes. It is thought that Cassatt underwent a treatment of radium inhalations, a therapy used for many diseases in the 19th century. The dangers of radium were not fully known, and this type of therapy was used for treatment of cataracts as well as diabetes.


Impact on her work

Cassatt’s visual problems forced her to switch from oils to pastels, which are easier to work with demand less precision. The precision of and detail in her early work is evident in her painting of her sister Lydia (left), painted when Cassatt was 36. Note the fine detail in the lace of Lydia’s hat and in the folds of her dress.

As her visual problems advanced, the meticulous lines that were characteristic of Cassatt’s earlier works became strident, bold strokes of color. This can be seen in her pastel of Margot (right), done at age 58, by which time, Cassatt had experienced visual difficulties for two years. Although a lovely picture in its own right, in comparison to Lydia, Margot is rendered with a more limited range of colors and relatively little detail. In her later works, her color range became similarly limited, and her canvases larger to accommodate for her loss of acuity.

Americans in Paris W010

Little Girl in Armchair 1878 mary_cassatt_spring_margot_standing_in_a_garden_postcard-r34a84d6a46ac45d09976c969a902ab04_vgbaq_8byvr_630



Alfred Reginald Thomson, 1894–1979

by richard

Alfred Reginald Thomson RA (10 December 1894 – 27 October 1979) was an English artist, most notable for being an official War Artist to the Royal Air Force during World War Two.[1]



Thomson’s portrait of George medal holder Charity Bick

Thomson was born in Bangalore in India where his father was a British civil servant.[2] Thomson was deaf from birth and when the family returned to Britain from India he attended the Royal School for Deaf Children at Margate.[3] Later in life he was known, in the press, as the “deaf and dumb” artist.[4]

Sister Fry 1939 Alfred R. Thomson 1894-1979 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1940

Sister Fry 1939 Alfred R. Thomson 1894-1979 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1940



Cocktail Bar 1931

Although Thomson attended the London Art School in Kensington for a time, he was largely self-taught as an artist and his first paid work was designing posters for a whisky company. He also created a series of posters for Daimler Cars.[2] At the end of the First World War Thomson established himself as a commercial artist and figure painter.[2] In the 1930s he created a series of murals for the Duncannon Hotel in London.[2] Thomson also had a talent as a caricaturist and he drew his fellow artists and friends.[2]

Thomson completed a number of commissions for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee during World War Two and in September 1942 became a full-time salaried artist attached to the Air Ministry, taking over the post that Eric Kennington had resigned from. Thomson painted several portraits of RAF air crews and also medical and civil defence subjects.[5][6]

In 1945 Thomson was elected to the Royal Academy and soon became a highly respected society portrait painter.[7] He also continued to paint murals, most notably for the Science Museum and the London Dental School.[3] In the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Thomson became the last person to win a Gold Medal for painting as medals for art were abandoned in subsequent Olympic games.[8]


  1. Jump up ^ “Artist biography;- Alfred R Thomson”. Tate. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  2. ^ Jump up to: a b c d e “Mr A.R. Thomson”. Obituaries. The Times (60482). London. 23 November 1979. col G, p. 14.
  3. ^ Jump up to: a b “Artist: Alfred Thomson”. room4art. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  4. Jump up ^ “Alfred Thomson RA (1894-1979)”. Archived from the original on 2009-07-03.
  5. Jump up ^ Imperial War Museum. “War artists archive;- A.R. Thomson”. Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  6. Jump up ^ Brain Foss (2007). War paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN978-0-300-10890-3.
  7. Jump up ^ “Alfred Thomson R.A”. Royal Academy. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  8. Jump up ^ *“The Official Report of the Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad London 1948″ (PDF). London: The Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad. 1951: 535–537. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 July 2011. Retrieved 7 March 2012.


Maurice Denton Welch, 1915–1948

September 2, 2017 by richard

Maurice Denton Welch was born March 29, 1915, in Shanghai, to Arthur Joseph Welch, whose parents were English, and Rosalind Basset, whose family was originally from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Denton Welch was the youngest of four boys and spent his early childhood in Shanghai, with many visits to England.

In 1924 Welch was enrolled in a school in Kensington, and then from 1926 to 1929 he attended St. Michael’s, a preparatory school in Uckfield, Sussex. While he was in school, his mother, with whom he was especially close, died in Shanghai during March 1927; this event had a profound effect on her son. In 1929 Welch started attending school at Repton in Derbyshire. Welch started at the Goldsmith School of Art in New Cross in 1933, where he studied for three years; among his teachers was the printmaker and graphic designer Edward Bawden. At first he lived in a house where his brother Bill was also rooming, and then he moved into a house near Greenwich Park where the landlady was Evelyn Sinclair, who became a close lifelong friend.

On June 7, 1935, Welch was traveling by bicycle to go visit his aunt, when he was hit by a car. His spine was fractured, and for a few months he was paralyzed from the chest down. He was able to learn to walk again, but with difficulty. For the rest of his life he had kidney and bladder infections, which would cause frequent severe headaches. After the accident, Welch first spent time at National Hospital, and then in the Southcourt Nursing Home in Broadstairs, Kent. When he left the nursing home July 1936, Welch rented an apartment with Evelyn Sinclair in Tonbridge in order that he could be close to his doctor, John Easton. Sinclair remained with Welch as his housekeeper at his different residences until May 1946, two months after Welch and his partner Eric Oliver moved to Middle Orchard, the country house of Noël and Bernard Adeney at Crouch, near Borough Green, Kent. Sinclair returned to Middle Orchard in July 1948 to assist Welch until his death.

Welch continued to paint and draw after his accident. In 1941 the Leicester Galleries in London first exhibited some of his paintings, and continued over the next few years to include his paintings in their exhibits. The Leger Gallery and Redfern Gallery, both in London, also exhibited his works.

Welch began writing in 1940, and some of his poems appeared in minor publications in 1941. In 1942, after the death of the painter Walter Sickert, Welch’s article “Sickert at St. Peter’s” (an amusing account of his having tea with Sickert shortly before Welch left the nursing home in Broadstairs) was published by Cyril Connolly in the August Horizon. Welch received a letter of praise from Edith Sitwell. Soon after, Herbert Read, editor at Routledge, accepted Welch’s manuscript for Maiden Voyage, and Dame Edith offered to write the foreword; she also wrote a review for the book. With her support, Maiden Voyage sold out before its May 1943 publication. The book received enthusiastic reviews, and Welch began writing In Youth Is Pleasure, which was published in February 1945. He also wrote several short stories, and in the fall of 1945, as his health was worsening, Welch resumed his work on A Voice Through a Cloud, a novel that he had begun earlier, and that was to remain unfinished at his death. Although Welch was to consider himself primarily a writer after the success of Maiden Voyage, he kept painting and drawing. Nine of his late paintings, created during a time when his health was failing, were reproduced in A Last Sheaf (published in 1951). He died December 30, 1948, at Middle Orchard Cottage in Crouch, Kent.

DentonWelch elf portrait


Self Portrait 1942

Welch, (Maurice) Denton; Harvest; Tate;

Welch, (Maurice) Denton; Harvest; Tate;  1940

For nearly half a century Eric Oliver (born Bromley, Kent 6 October 1914; died Portslade, East Sussex 1 April 1995) basked in the reflected glory of having lived with the writer Denton Welch for the last four years of his life. (P: Eric Oliver in 1947)

Oliver was introduced to Welch in November 1943 at a time when Oliver, a conscientious objector, was working on the land and Welch was living as a semi-invalid, following a disastrous road accident when he was 20, near Hadlow, in Kent. “After you left the other night,” Welch wrote to the painter Nol Adeney, “who should appear but Francis [Streeten, one of Welch’s more eccentric acquaintances] and a new hearty land-boy friend! The land-boy kept suggesting that I should get up and go out and have a drink with him! As I was almost a corpse by then, I could not oblige.” He elaborated in his Journals: “I tried to be very bright; but it was an awful strain. They had been drinking in a pub and had come on to me later. They were still mildly redolent of the pub and beer.”

Despite Oliver’s boozy and often hurtful conduct, Denton Welch fell in love with him. The intensity of Welch’s emotions was not returned, for on his own admission Oliver was incapable of love (“You must never take me seriously,” he wrote in the only letter of his to Welch which survives), but, once they had sorted out the imbalance in their relationship, Oliver moved in with him, and as Welch’s physical condition deteriorated Oliver nursed him with practical expertise.

On the face of it, Eric Oliver seemed an incongruous choice of companion for a writer and painter as fastidious as Denton Welch. “It is just because you are different that I like you,” Welch wrote to him in February 1944. “You wouldn’t touch my imagination in the very least if you approximated more to my type.” Oliver was virtually illiterate, and had little judgement about people, art or business. As Welch’s residuary beneficiary on his death at the tragically early age of 33 (inheriting about £5,000), he appointed himself his literary executor, but parted with the copyrights of Welch’s works to a bookseller who promptly resold them to the University of Texas. Oliver always maintained that he did not understand what he was signing.He wrote that (emetically sentimental, wrenchingly wistful) desire from the crooked perspective of injury and damaged youth. As a statement, it interests me in that it comes from a literalized version of that perennial fantasy of the old: the wasted and damaged youth. For Welch, this fantasy was a reality, and the desire to have it undone, to pull back the cheap threads of time was more violent and truly spoken than the common bad-faith regret of the old. Although, a voice (through a cloud?) whispers into my ear with the warmth of seduction, “We all waste our youth. At least he had a real excuse; you certainly do not.


Portrait of Welch in 1935 soon after accident by Gerald McKenzie

Standing Nude with ViolinThe Coffin House

Claude Monet, 1840–1926

by richard

Claude Monet 1840-1926


Claude Monet also known as Oscar-Claude Monet or Claude Oscar Monet (November 14, 1840 – December 5, 1926) was a founder of French impressionist painting, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to plein-air landscape painting. The term Impressionism is derived from the title of his painting Impression, Sunrise.

Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840 on the fifth floor of 45 rue Laffitte, in the ninth arrondissement of Paris. He was the second son of Claude-Adolphe and Louise-Justine Aubrée Monet, both of them second-generation Parisians. On May 20, 1841, he was baptized into the local church parish, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette as Oscar-Claude. In 1845, his family moved to Le Havre in Normandy. His father wanted him to go into the family grocery store business, but Claude Monet wanted to become an artist. His mother was a singer.


On the first of April 1851, Monet entered the Le Havre secondary school of the arts. He first became known locally for his charcoal caricatures, which he would sell for ten to twenty francs. Monet also undertook his first drawing lessons from Jacques-François Ochard, a former student of Jacques-Louis David. On the beaches of Normandy in about 1856/1857 he met fellow artist Eugène Boudin who became his mentor and taught him to use oil paints. Boudin taught Monet “en plein air” (outdoor) techniques for painting.


On 28 January 1857 his mother died. He was 16 years old when he left school, and went to live with his widowed childless aunt, Marie-Jeanne Lecadre.

Working Title/Artist: The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location:  HB/TOA Date Code:  Working Date: 1865 scanned for collections

Working Title/Artist: The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest
Department: European Paintings
HB/TOA Date Code:
Working Date: 1865
scanned for collections

Working Title/Artist: Garden at Sainte-AdresseDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 10Working Date: 1867 Digital Photo File Name: DT48.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 2/20/14

Working Title/Artist: Garden at Sainte-AdresseDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 10Working Date: 1867
Digital Photo File Name: DT48.tif
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 2/20/14


When Monet traveled to Paris to visit The Louvre, he witnessed painters copying from the old masters. Monet, having brought his paints and other tools with him, would instead go and sit by a window and paint what he saw. Monet was in Paris for several years and met several painters who would become friends and fellow impressionists. One of those friends was Édouard Manet.


In June 1861 Monet joined the First Regiment of African Light Cavalry in Algeria for two years of a seven-year commitment, but upon his contracting typhoid his aunt Marie-Jeanne Lecadre intervened to get him out of the army if he agreed to complete an art course at a university. It is possible that the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind, whom Monet knew, may have prompted his aunt on this matter. Disillusioned with the traditional art taught at universities, in 1862 Monet became a student of Charles Gleyre in Paris, where he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. Together they shared new approaches to art, painting the effects of light en plein air with broken color and rapid brushstrokes, in what later came to be known as Impressionism.


Monet’s Camille or The Woman in the Green Dress (La Femme à la Robe Verte), painted in 1866, brought him recognition, and was one of many works featuring his future wife, Camille Doncieux; she was the model for the figures in The Woman in the Garden of the following year, as well as for On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, pictured here. Shortly thereafter Doncieux became pregnant and gave birth to their first child, Jean. In 1868, due to financial reasons, Monet attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.

Working Title/Artist: La Grenouillere Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location:  HB/TOA Date Code:  Working Date: 1869 photographed by mma in 1984/94, transparency 23ad (8x10) scanned by film and media 9/10/04 (phc)

Working Title/Artist: La Grenouillere
Department: European Paintings
HB/TOA Date Code:
Working Date: 1869
photographed by mma in 1984/94, transparency 23ad (8×10)
scanned by film and media 9/10/04 (phc)


After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870), Monet took refuge in England in September 1870. While there, he studied the works of John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner, both of whose landscapes would serve to inspire Monet’s innovations in the study of color. In the Spring of 1871, Monet’s works were refused authorisation to be included in the Royal Academy exhibition.


In May 1871 he left London to live in Zaandam, where he made 25 paintings (and the police suspected him of revolutionary activities). He also paid a first visit to nearby Amsterdam. In October or November 1871 he returned to France. Monet lived from December 1871 to 1878 at Argenteuil, a village on the Seine near Paris, and here he painted some of his best known works. In 1874, he briefly returned to Holland.


In 1872 (or 1873), he painted Impression, Sunrise (Impression: soleil levant) depicting a Le Havre landscape. It hung in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and is now displayed in the Musée Marmottan-Monet, Paris. From the painting’s title, art critic Louis Leroy coined the term “Impressionism”, which he intended as disparagement but which the Impressionists appropriated for themselves.


Monet and Camille Doncieux had married just before the war (June 28, 1870) and, after their excursion to London and Zaandam, they had moved into a house in Argenteuil near the Seine River in December 1871. She became ill in 1876. They had a second son, Michel, on March 17, 1878, (Jean was born in 1867). This second child weakened her already fading health. In that same year, he moved to the village of Vétheuil. At the age of thirty-two, Madame Monet died on 5 September 1879 of tuberculosis; Monet painted her on her death bed.



After several difficult months following the death of Camille on 5 September 1879, a grief-stricken Monet (resolving never to be mired in poverty again) began in earnest to create some of his best paintings of the 19th century. During the early 1880s Monet painted several groups of landscapes and seascapes in what he considered to be campaigns to document the French countryside. His extensive campaigns evolved into his series’ paintings.


In 1878 the Monets temporarily moved into the home of Ernest Hoschedé, (1837-1891), a wealthy department store owner and patron of the arts. Both families then shared a house in Vétheuil during the summer. After her husband (Ernest Hoschedé) became bankrupt, and left in 1878 for Belgium, in September 1879, and while Monet continued to live in the house in Vétheuil; Alice Hoschedé helped Monet to raise his two sons, Jean and Michel, by taking them to Paris to live alongside her own six children. They were Blanche, Germaine, Suzanne, Marthe, Jean-Pierre, and Jacques. In the spring of 1880 Alice Hoschedé and all the children left Paris and rejoined Monet still living in the house in Vétheuil. In 1881 all of them moved to Poissy which Monet hated. From the doorway of the little train between Vernon and Gasny he discovered Giverny. In April 1883 they moved to Vernon, then to a house in Giverny, Eure, in Upper Normandy, where he planted a large garden where he painted for much of the rest of his life. Following the death of her estranged husband, Alice Hoschedé married Claude Monet in 1892.



At the beginning of May 1883, Monet and his large family rented a house and two acres from a local landowner. The house was situated near the main road between the towns of Vernon and Gasny at Giverny. There was a barn that doubled as a painting studio, orchards and a small garden. The house was close enough to the local schools for the children to attend and the surrounding landscape offered an endless array of suitable motifs for Monet’s work. The family worked and built up the gardens and Monet’s fortunes began to change for the better as his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel had increasing success in selling his paintings. By November 1890 Monet was prosperous enough to buy the house, the surrounding buildings and the land for his gardens. Within a few years by 1899 Monet built a greenhouse and a second studio, a spacious building, well lit with skylights. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, through the end of his life in 1926, Monet worked on “series” paintings, in which a subject was depicted in varying light and weather conditions. His first series exhibited as such was of Haystacks, painted from different points of view and at different times of the day. Fifteen of the paintings were exhibited at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1891. He later produced several series of paintings including: Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, the Houses of Parliament, Mornings on the Seine, and the Water Lilies that were painted on his property at Giverny.


Monet was exceptionally fond of painting controlled nature: his own gardens in Giverny, with its water lilies, pond, and bridge. He also painted up and down the banks of the Seine.


Between 1883 and 1908, Monet traveled to the Mediterranean, where he painted landmarks, landscapes, and seascapes, such as Bordighera. He painted an important series of paintings in Venice, Italy, and in London he painted two important series — views of Parliament and views of Charing Cross Bridge. His second wife Alice died in 1911 and his oldest son Jean, who had married Alice’s daughter Blanche, Monet’s particular favourite, died in 1914. After his wife died, Blanche looked after and cared for him. It was during this time that Monet began to develop the first signs of cataracts.

Working Title/Artist: Monet: The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog)Department: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date:  photography by mma, Digital File DT1893.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 12_7_10

Working Title/Artist: Monet: The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog)Department: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date:
photography by mma, Digital File DT1893.tif
retouched by film and media (jnc) 12_7_10


During World War I, in which his younger son Michel served and his friend and admirer Clemenceau led the French nation, Monet painted a series of Weeping Willow trees as homage to the French fallen soldiers. Cataracts formed on Monet’s eyes, for which he underwent two operations in 1923. The paintings done while the cataracts affected his vision have a general reddish tone, which is characteristic of the vision of cataract victims. It may also be that after surgery he was able to see certain ultraviolet wavelengths of light that are normally excluded by the lens of the eye, this may have had an effect on the colors he perceived. After his operations he even repainted some of these paintings, with bluer water lilies than before the operation.

 ‘Cataracts the key to Monet’s blurry style’

Image 1 of 2

Monet painted Water-Lily Pond in 1899

By Stewart Payne

12:01AM BST 16 May 2007

Scientists claim to have proved what many in the art world have long suspected – that Claude Monet painted in his distinctive style because cataracts blurred his vision.

Monet, a founder of French Impressionist painting, suffered from cataracts for much of his later life, during which time he produced some of his most characteristic work.

Using computers, researchers recreated the scene of Monet’s Water-Lily Pond as the artist would have seen it.

The pond was the subject of a series of canvasses he painted in 1899, showing the same view in differing light conditions. He exhibited them the following year, when he was aged 60.

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The results of the study, led by Dr Michael Marmor, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University, California, show how badly Monet’s vision may have been affected. The picture he and his team recreated was blurred and the colours varied, creating dark, muddy shades of yellowish green.

As Monet’s sight worsened, his works turned from fresh, bright colours to blurred visions of heavy browns and reds, abandoning the floral vision of his famous garden at Giverny, north of Paris.

Dr Marmor looked at scenes and models that Monet painted repeatedly, and found that the changes in colour and detail run parallel to the changes in his sight.

Monet underwent two surgeries for his cataracts in 1923, two years before his death aged 85.

Although Monet’s eyesight problems were not recognised until after he painted Water-Lily Pond, Dr Marmor believes his sight was already deteriorating. The cataracts severely limited his colour discrimination, which may explain the muddied tone of his later paintings. “He couldn’t really judge what he was seeing,” said Dr Marmor. “His vision was becoming progressively more brownish in essence. It was getting harder to see, and more blurred, but he was probably more bothered by the progressive loss of colour vision than the blur alone.

“Monet may have used strong colours in these paintings because he was using them from memory or because he was over-compensating for his yellow vision by adding more blue.”

Dr Marmor, whose findings appear in the Archives of Ophthalmology, also recreated some scenes painted by Edgar Degas, who also suffered sight problems.

He said: “Here we can see for ourselves what they were seeing through their eyes.

“Critics have known that these men had failing vision, but I don’t think they could appreciate what it meant to these artists. It gives both new respect for what they could do with limited vision, but also gives us reason to re-examine perhaps what these paintings mean in the evolution of their style and work.” Chris Riopelle, curator of 19th century paintings at the National Gallery, said: “I think there has always been a great mystery behind Monet and how much influence his eyesight problems had on his work.”

However, he said the research did not answer all the questions. “After surgery, Monet’s style did not alter radically.

“He also painted for 60 years before having problems, so developed a vast amount of skill.

“There will always be something of a mystery here.”

Images A and C show two of Monet’s “The Japanese Bridge at Giverny” (1918-1924/Musee Marmatton, Paris) from around the time when his vision was at its worst. Images B and D respectively show the two paintings as they might have appeared to Monet through his cataract. The oranges and blues of the two paintings become almost indistinguishable.

Credit: Archives of Ophthalmology/Musee Marmatton/Michael Marmor

Monet’s visual disorder: Cataracts

Although Monet was diagnosed with nuclear cataracts in both eyes by a Parisian ophthalmologist in 1912, at the age of 72, his visual problems began much earlier. Soon after 1905 (age 65) he began to experience changes in his perception of color. He no longer perceived colors with the same intensity. Indeed his paintings showed a change in the whites and greens and blues, with a shift towards “muddier” yellow and purple tones. After 1915, his paintings became much more abstract, with an even more pronounced color shift from blue-green to red-yellow. He complained of perceiving reds as muddy, dull pinks, and other objects as yellow. These changes are consistent with the visual effects of cataracts. Nuclear cataracts absorb light, desaturate colors, and make the world appear more yellow.

Monet was both troubled and intrigued by the effects of his declining vision, as he reacted to the the foggy, impressionistic personal world that he was famous for painting. In a letter to his friend G. or J. Bernheim-Jeune he wrote, “To think I was getting on so well, more absorbed than I’ve ever been and expecting to achieve something, but I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey. All in all, I am very unhappy.” – August 11, 1922, Giverny.


Treatment Received: Surgery and corrective lenses

Monet sought the help of many ophthalmologists. The French ophthalmologist Charles Coutela, M.D, prescribed eydrops to dilate the pupil of the left eye and Monet was very happy with the results intially. The good vision afforded by the drops, however, didn’t last long and surgery was recommended. Monet was aware of the poor outcome of cataract surgery for his contemporary Impressionist Mary Cassatt, and so was reluctant initially to undergo the same surgery. Doctor Coutela finally performed a cataract operation on Monet’s right eye in January of 1923, when Monet was 82.

At first, Monet was very disappointed with the results of the operation. Immediately after the surgery he did not want to rest his eyes, that doing so interfered with his work. Depressed, he tried to rip off the bandages. He expressed this frustration in writing to Doctor Coutela: “I might have finished the Décorations which I have to deliver in April and I’m certain now that I won’t be able to finish them as I’d have liked. That’s the greatest blow I could have had and it makes me sorry that I ever decided to go ahead with that fatal operation. Excuse me for being so frank and allow me to say that I think it’s criminal to have placed me in such a predicament.” – from letter to Doctor Charles Coutela, June 22, 1923, Giverny.

Monet adamantly refused to have his left eye operated on. The left eye, clouded by a dense yellow cataract, could not see violets and blues; the right eye however, could see these colors clearly. As a result of their difference in color perception and acuity, Monet was never again able to use both eyes together effectively.

Coutela fitted Monet with spectacles specialized for cataracts, enabling Monet to read easily and continue his correspondence. Although Coutela recorded Monet’s vision as near perfect with correction, he found it hard to adjust to the new lenses complaining about seeing distorted shapes and exaggerated colors that were “quite terrifying”. He tried a new pair of glasses in 1924, and was somewhat happier with those.


Impact on his work

Monet’s exquisite sensitivity to light, color, and detail was central to his work. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye– yet what an eye”. As his cataracts advanced Monet’s work was increasingly affected. His paintings of water lilies and willows over the period 1918-1922 as Monet entered his eighties, exemplify this change. Tones became muddier and darker, and forms became less distinct as his contrast sensitivity declined. His later works are typified by large brush strokes, indistinct coloration, and an often an absence of light blues. The sense of atmosphere and light that he was famous for presenting in his earlier works disappeared. In order to distinguish colors, Monet carefully read the labels on his paints, and kept a regular order of colors on his palette. Monet also experienced problems with glare that made working outside difficult. He took to wearing a wide-brimmed panama hat and ceased painting outside in the middle of the day.

While other possible explanations, such as stylistic change or age-related changes in manual dexterity, may account for the dramatic alterations in his work, Monet attributed them to the effects of the cataracts. He wrote, “in the end I was forced to recognize that I was spoiling them [the paintings], that I was no longer capable of doing anything good. So I destroyed several of my panels. Now I’m almost blind and I’m having to abandon work altogether. It’s hard but that’s the way it is: a sad end despite my good health!” – letter to Marc Elder, May 8, 1922, Giverny. Throughout his letters, Monet comments on his good physical health with the exception of his vision. There is no evidence for a great decline in manual dexterity. Thus, it does not seem unlikely that the broad brush strokes of his later paintings are a result of his declining vision and the psychological distress accompanying it.


The absence of form and detail in the paintings below contrasts starkly with those done earlier in Monet’s life.


060502-0114001 18995


Japanese Bridge 1924



Monet died of lung cancer on December 5, 1926 at the age of 86 and is buried in the Giverny church cemetery. Monet had insisted that the occasion be simple; thus about fifty people attended the ceremony.


Agnes Richter, 1844–1918

September 1, 2017 by richard

Agnes Richter (1844–1918) was a German-born seamstress. In 1893, Richter was admitted to a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital on the behalf of her father and brothers following several acute delusional episodes.[1] Richter’s legacy has survived primarily because of its entanglement with a small, personal jacket that she sewed during her lengthy institutionalization. Pieced together from brown wool and course institutional linen, the jacket is covered in messily embroider deutsche schrift, a script which has largely fallen out of use. The lines of red, yellow, blue, orange, and white threaded text are difficult to read, overlapping and obscured through continual use. Fragments of text from Richters Jacket have been deciphered though their significance and meaning remains unclear (e.g., I am not big, I wish to read, I plunge headlong into disaster). Her case number, 583m appears repeatedly, suggesting that the jacket may represent an biographical object.[1]

Life in German asylums at the fin-de-siecle was highly regimented. While male patients worked in the grounds or in workshops to manufacture shoes, furniture, female patients were expected to clean, sew, knit, and launder institutional uniforms and textiles. Embracing these technologies in a manner, Richter assembled both a and a in the jacket. It bears the marks of its use, including sweat stains and a darted back that may have to accommodate a physical deformity hunch back.

gnes Richter’s embroidered straitjacket has become a beloved and well-known symbol of the Outsider Art movement. And it is indeed a powerful item, whose cryptic words and delicate embroidery still makes a deep impression on people today. The darkly beautiful jacket intrigues the viewer with haunting snippets of phrases and idea that give us tantalizing but mysterious peeks into her disturbed mind. As Helen McCarthy of A Face Made For Radio eloquently puts it: “She wasn’t trying to decorate or sloganize – the words told the story of her life. She spent her days transforming a mental institution’s uniform – the symbol of her de-personalisation – into a profoundly personal record of her journey.”

I find the move to categorize it as “art” slightly problematic. To me, the term “art”- even that created by people outside the bounds of the traditional art world – implies an act of creative intention to make art. Although the embroidery of her jacket was undoubtedly an act of expression, I’m not convinced that this should be the only qualifying trait of art. To me, Agnes Richter’s straitjacket is more akin to a diary created from a comfortable medium (as she was a seamstress), or perhaps made out of the only materials she had on hand. As an art historian, Hans Prinzhorn’s academic interests framed the jacket as “art” and under his influence it has continued to be perceived in that way. I wonder how differently this artifact would be understood if Prinzhorn had been trained in linguistics and collected it to decode the meanings of Richter’s embroidered text?

Or maybe I’m just so “inside” the art world, I can’t see “outside” art properly.


The Jacket was collected by Hans Prinzhornn in the early 20th century.[4] Since its rediscovery amidst the collections in 1980, the jacket has become an iconic piece in the Prinzhorn Collection at Heidelberg. Similar examples of asylum artistry from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries include Myrellen’s Coat.[5

Franz Karl Bühler, 1864–1940

by richard

Bruler1buehler2 (* 28 August 1864 in Offenburg , † 1940 in Grafeneck ) was a German art-fitter and painter. He was honored for his work as a German art smith . He taught for three years as a lecturer at the Straßburger Kunstgewerbeschule . Also known are his works as painters , which he produced in various institutions and published by Hans Prinzhorn under the pseudonym “Fra After his school days in Offenburg, Franz Karl Bühler completed an apprenticeship in the father’s forge workshop. In Karlsruhe and Munich (1886 to 1887) he attended art colleges and was very successful. In 1887, Bühler took part in the ‘competition exhibition’ of German art-work-work, organized by Hermann Götz , with an oven screen, and received an honorary diploma.

In May 1893, Buhler was called to the Straßburger Kunsthandwerkerschule as a teacher for art locksmithery. In the same year, he traveled to Chicago for a world-wide exhibition , where a forged gate was awarded a (gold) medal. After three years of teaching, Buhler was dismissed by the school management. From then on, Buhler suffered from a strong persecution , so that he was placed in Breitenau, the Swiss mental institution. After a short stay, he came to Illenau for two yearsin order to finally be found in the Emmendingen Medical and Care Institution in 1900. There he spent most of his life creating a variety of pictures. These pictures arouse the interest of Hans Prinzhorn in 1919 , which took pictures of Franz Karl Bühler under his pseudonym Franz Pohl in his collection.

Buhler 3Buhler 4

Even more than thirty years after Buhler was “disappeared” in the healing and nursing institutions, his works were exhibited as art locksmiths: “But we also find drawings and works from a time already half a century ago: Regierungsbaumeister Meyer has one thing today still a few Offenburgern known man, the university professor Dr. Prinzhorn set a monument in his standard work ‘Die Bildnerei der Schizophrenen’. Franz Bühler, who has been a mentor in Emmendingen for decades, the son of the late sculptor Buhler, has been a great artist. He was an art clerk, a teacher at the College of Fine Arts in Strasbourg, a writer, a multidilletant. With a unique wrought-iron gate, which, hopefully in Offenburg, will be given a place in the new city park, has earned the greatest honor at the Chicago world exhibition, and he has achieved the greatest success until his mind is incurably wounded. He still works today. His drawings are bizarre, but also from what he still draws and paints as a seventy-year-old, one sees his artistic talent. From his healthy days many a valuable piece could still be saved, it was brought to the exhibition here. A tragic experience will be given to everyone who stands before this work and remembers the personality of Franz Bühler. “(Excerpt from a report from the Badische Press, morning edition of 3 October 1931, 47th edition, no. 459, page 3, of the Autumn Autumn Fair.) 

franzk_Buhler self

August Natterer, 1868–1933

by richard


He was born in 1868 in Ravensburger Vorstadtschornreute as the son of an employee and was the youngest of nine children. Natterer was married and an electrical engineer, when he was sent to a psychiatric institution in 1907 for delirium and anxiety . To his will, he remained until his death in institutions. At this time a great productivity as a painter, in which he mostly tried to hold his hallucinations .

On April Fool’s Day 1907 he had a pivotal hallucination of the Last Judgment during which “10,000 images flashed by in half an hour.” He described it as follows:

I saw a white spot in the clouds absolutely close – all the clouds paused – then the white spot departed and stood all the time like a board in the sky. On the same board or the screen or stage now images as quick as a flash followed each other, about 10,000 in half an hour… God himself occurred, the witch, who created the world – in between worldly visions: images of war, continents, memorials, castles, beautiful castles, just the glory of the world – but all of this to see in supernal images. They were at least twenty meters big, clear to observe, almost without color like photographs… The images were epiphanies of the Last Judgment. Christ couldn’t fulfill the salvation because he was crucified early… God revealed them to me to accomplish the salvation.”


He was visited several times by the psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn . Through his work The sculpture of the mind-sick“Neter” became known to a broader public. August Natterer died of heart failure in an institution near Rottweil in 1933 .


William Blake, 1757–1827

by richard

William Blake (1757–1827)  lived in “a Deep pit of Melancholy, Melancholy without any real reason for it.” These episodes were often followed by periods of “illumination” and intense creativity-Likely Bi-Polar

Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Nebuchadnezzar (Blake) 1805

William Blake was both a great poet and a great painter. Blake invented a method of relief engraving that was able to combine his poetry and paintings so that they formed a unified work. In the West, only Michelangelo had previously demonstrated such singular talent in both painting and poetry, but unlike Blake he did not combine them. Blake was one of the progenitors of the revolutionary Romantic movement, and his verse was admired by Coleridge and Wordsworth.

220px-Newton-WilliamBlake 1795

Newton 1795

Stanzas by Blake such as the following have become an imperishable part of the Western canon:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour —from “Auguries of Innocence” Long before Heinz Kohut and self psychology,

Blake captured the essential tragedy of narcissistic pathology:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,

To bind another to its delight,

Joys in another’s loss of ease,

And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite’ —from “The Clod and the Pebble”

Blake’s father owned a hosiery and haberdashery shop in London. As was common for tradesmen, the family lived above the shop. Blake was the third child of six. He was raised in the Protestant Dissenting tradition, one that emphasized private devotion and individual conscience separate from the authority of priest and church. In the lexicon of the 18th century, the term for extreme dissent was “enthusiasm” (possessed by God). Later in life, Blake, who was deeply religious, referred to himself as an “enthusiastic hope-fostered visionary.” He demonstrated artistic and literary talent from an early age, and his enlightened parents enrolled him in a drawing school at the age of 10. He was educated as a commercial engraver and was later admitted as a student to the prestigious Royal Academy. In 1782, Blake married a woman from a working class family.

William_Blake_003Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805) is one of a series of illustrations of RevelationWilliam_Blake_002 IMAGE OF APPARITION170px-WilliamBlake'sHouse

This was a childless but mutually devoted marriage that lasted 45 years. Blake’s artistic career underwent many financial vicissitudes, and though he had a number of aristocratic patrons who recognized his originality, his true genius was not fully appreciated until after his death. He may have died from liver failure secondary to biliary cirrhosis induced by chronic copper ingestion during his etching copper plates for his engravings. From his childhood onward Blake saw visions. His biographer, Bentley, recounts, “Once his mother beat him for running in and saying that he saw the prophet Ezekial under a Tree in the Field” (1, p. 19) and, “Later when he was eight or ten, one day as he was walking—he saw a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars” (p. 19). His wife commented in 1810, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.” Blake’s recurrent hallucinatory visions suffused his poetry and painting, especially his great epics and their accompanying watercolours and engravings.


Alongside his ecstatic visions, Blake was prone to fits of severe depression. In 1800, he recounted a descent into “a Deep pit of Melancholy, Melancholy without any real reason for it.” These episodes were often followed by periods of “illumination” and intense creativity. This is highly suggestive of bipolar illness, albeit a mild form that did not disrupt his enormous creative achievement and may have been central to his transcendent artistic vision.

Reference 1. Bentley GE Jr: The Stranger From Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 2001 PETER J. BUCKLEY, M.D. Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Buckley, 336 Central Park West #5A, New York, NY 10025; (e-mail).

Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, New York. Am J Psychiatry 162:5, May 2005

RR adds In his life Blake had a collection of prints some of which his father had given him. When he hit hard times he sold them off all but a Durer print of Melancholia which he always had on the wall in front of his work table where he engraved. Perhaps he found comfort in this image.melencoliagesamt dURER

Disability in Art History

by richard

Disability in Art History

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This class will look at examples of the disabled human body as it has been represented in art history. What does it mean to be human? How is the body used and represented in visual culture? How are formations of disability articulated in relation to ideas of normality, hybridity, and/or anomaly, and how do artists use visual culture to affirm or subvert notions of the normative body? From Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Diego Velázquez to Marc Quinn and the Chapman brothers, artists have included images of the disabled body in their work. Other artists, including Orlan and Stelarc, have used their bodies to push notions of normality.

This lesson plan explores the body in visual culture to uncover the ways in which bodily difference is and has been articulated physically and theoretically and demonstrates the ways in which disability, like gender, race, or sexuality, is a cultural construction. This lesson includes artwork from across stylistic and historical periods in order to demonstrate the ways in which disability is historically and culturally contingent. Considerations include the changing role of images of the body in visual culture and the place of those representations in society.

Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just a few artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.


  • Historical Representations of Disability
  • “Freakshows,” Power, and Privilege
  • Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

Chronologically, “disability studies” emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, and “body art” was established as a category of contemporary art in the 1970s, but disabled bodies occur in art dating to at least the 1st century CE. Still, a class on the disabled body might come quite late in the semester, after looking at other issues of identity, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. A lecture on “Disability in Art” can be a good opportunity to reflect on a central narrative of art history—representation of the human figure—and to reflect on the ways in which art contributes to and challenges the construction of normative culture. Disability studies offers an alternative methodology and point of departure for the study of the body in art history.

Consider past material covered with the class—how has the body, both abled and disabled, appeared within the course? Why do we tend to ignore the disabled bodies that appear in works such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)? How much have we learned about the lives and impact of people with disabilities throughout history? Why might that be?

300px-Las_Meninas_(1656),_by_Velazquez 1656

Ableism is defined in disability studies as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. The ableist views able bodies as the norm in society, implying that people who have disabled bodies must strive to become that norm. Disability is thus held as an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity; disability is seen as a “bad” thing that must be overcome. Use this definition to prompt a discussion about the ways ability bias has impacted art making and the ways it can affect our understanding of history. Ask students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the above questions, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of works that include representations of disability. Consider the biases of historians who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568.


Some background readings for teachers that are both foundational disability studies texts and that address various applications of the topic outlined above (historical representations of disability; the “freakshow” and issues of power and privilege; and the body, performance art, and the posthuman) include:

  • Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body(New York: New York University Press, 1996).
  • Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  • Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives(New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  • Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement(New York: Times Books, 1994).


Disability has always been part of the human condition. Throughout history, people with disabilities have often served as visual and cultural objects, rather than as active participants in and creators of culture and media. People with disabilities have not typically decided how they would be portrayed in art, nor have they participated in the creation of the art objects in which their bodies appeared. Instead, artists and authors have used various disabilities to convey ideas about evil, suffering, grace, and human nature and to reinforce stereotypes about disability.

Disability is a subjective, corporeal, and complex sociocultural construction. Looking at disabled bodies in art history offers significant insight into the various ways in which art can support or subvert the construction and performance of normative values. Recognizing the ways in which art performs disability ultimately challenges one-dimensional understandings of disability and art.

The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in one hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:

  • Polykleitos, Doryphoros, marble copy of bronze original, c. 450–440 BCE
  • Old Market Woman, 150–100 BCE
  • El Greco, The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind,1570
  • Mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (1180s)
  • Luttrell Psalter, 1325
    • Man with crutches
    • Crippled child
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple, 1659
  • Francisco Goya, Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux, 1824–7
  • Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane, 1822
  • Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film,Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Francis Galton’s Composite Portraits (published in ThePhotographic News)
    • “The Jewish Type,” 1885
    • “Health, Disease, and Criminality,” 1885
  • Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Albrecht Dürer, frontispiece to Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, 1645
  • Lavinia Fontana, Antonietta Gonzalez, 1656
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Myrtle Corbin, c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Eli Bowen “The Legless Acrobat,” c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Charles B. Tripp, c. 1880
  • Marion Post Wolcott, Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, 1939
  • Ben Shahn, Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, 1938
  • Russell Lee, Untitled, Donaldsonville, Louisiana, 1938
  • Reginald Marsh, Sideshow Sign at Coney Island, c. 1939
  • Eudora Welty, Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair, c. 1939
  • Diane Arbus, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, New York City, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Untitled, 1970–71
  • Otto Dix, War Cripples, 1920
  • Otto Dix, Scat Players, 1920
  • Orlan, Self-Hybridizations, 1994–Present
  • Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98
  • Lisa Bufano, Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, 2013
  • Matthew Barney with Aimee Mullins, Cremaster 3, 2002
  • Mary Duffy, Performance, 1995
  • Venus de Milo, 130–100 BCE
  • Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
  • Jake and Dinos Chapman, Übermensch(Portrait of Stephen Hawking), 1995

Old Market Woman, 100–150CE.

Historical Representations of Disability in Art History

What does the Classical world’s preference for idealism tell us about their ideology? Aristotle (384–322 BCE) believed, as did many in Ancient Greece, that men were the most highly evolved beings, and that women were an evolutionary step below, representing “the first step along the road to deformity.” Aristotle recommended euthanasia for “deformed children,” writing, “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” Although Hellenistic art includes representations of “grotesques,” the elderly, and children, there were few representations of disability in the Ancient world. Ask students to compare and contrast Classical idealism in the Doryphoros and Hellenistic naturalism in the Old Market Woman and the ways in which stylistic preferences relate to societal values. Could the preference for naturalism and the inclusion of subjects with disabilities, including the elderly, the blind, and the lame, indicate tolerance or even respect for people with disabilities?

001Old Market Woman, 100-150CE.Doryphoros_MAN_Napoli_Inv6011-2


The rise of Christianity led to more depictions of people with disabilities, because in the New Testament, Jesus is frequently credited with showing kindness and performing miracles to cure people who were lame, blind, and otherwise disabled. These miracles were often depicted in art, for example in El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570) and the mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (Palermo, Italy), which show Jesus healing lepers.

DT407 Christ Healing the Blind El Greco 1540_41–1614 Toledo 157 NYMChrist healing Lepers 11784 on Cathedral Mosaic Montreale Palermo

Ask students to consider the ways in which the idea of “curing the sick” and Biblical miracles contributed to the historical understanding of people with disabilities and their place within society. For instance, the Church’s interest in disability was based on Jesus’ role as a miraculous healer and as a spiritual “physician.” Monks and nuns followed the seven “spiritual works,” which involved feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, visiting them when in prison or sick, and providing counsel and burial services.

“Spiritual works” may have been necessary at a time when much of the population, if they survived disease, famine, war and pestilence, would have had some degree of impairment. In Medieval England, the ‘lepre’ (leper), the ‘blynde’ (blind), the ‘dumbe’ (dumb), the ‘deaff’ (deaf), the ’natural fool’ (a person with a learning difficulty), the ‘creple’ (cripple), the ‘lame’ and the ‘lunatick’ (lunatic) were highly visible presences in everyday life and are represented in manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter.n medieval England, the 'leprechaun', the 'blynde', the 'dumbe', the 'deaff', the 'natural fool', the 'creple', the 'lame' and the 'lunatick' were a highly visible presence in Everyday life.

How do these depictions of people with disabilities as part of the fabric of everyday life differ from representations of miraculous cures? Christianity could be used to elicit empathy and support the humane treatment of people with disabilities, but it could also be used to support the belief that people with disabilities were cursed by Satan, and that their disability was a result of sin. As such, people with disabilities were often considered unclean and forced to live in exile. When traveling through a town, people with leprosy were required to ring a bell, alerting others to their presence.

At the time of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, persons with developmental disabilities were treated as subhuman organisms. Martin Luther (1483–1546) denounced children and adults with cognitive disorders as “filled with Satan.” Luther advised that children with severe mental retardation be drowned, because they lacked souls. Similarly John Calvin (1509–64) argued that people with disabilities were not among those predestined for salvation.

As the authority of the Roman Catholic Church diminished, many of the charitable services it provided ceased to exist. The poor and misfortunate, without the refuge of the church, became increasingly homeless at a moment of rapid growth in urban centers. In the city of Paris during the early 1500s, approximately one-third of the population resorted to begging as a means of survival. Many people with disabilities survived as mendicants, as pictured in The Beggars, by Pieter Bruegel (1568).

Christianity, then, often viewed disability as either a sin on the part of persons with disabilities or their families. However, they were also sometimes represented as an act of God for some divine purpose. In the first case, people were punished and excluded from society. In the second case, they were viewed as divine and considered holy. Perceived as sinners or saints, persons with disabilities were usually kept separate from mainstream society and their disabilities were thought to serve some divine purpose.

Have students compare and contrast Rembrandt’s Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple and Goya’s Beggars Who Get Around on Their Own in Bordeaux in small groups. Ask them to list their similarities and differences. What sorts of ideas and stereotypes about people with disabilities do these representations construct? What emotions do they evoke?




Both images feature a man with a disability. In Rembrandt’s piece, there are two other characters as well: St. Peter and St. John, who stand over the “cripple” (the commonly accepted term of the time) in an attitude of benevolence and authority. In the biblical story, faith and divine intervention bring about a cure of the man’s disability.

Goya’s drawing focuses more closely on the disabled individual, a beggar riding in a wheelchair. The subject appears dirty and disheveled but also actively engaged in the world. Even the work’s title emphasizes mobility and independence. Goya’s beggar looks out of the piece at the viewer and is portrayed as an active person, whereas Rembrandt’s cripple sits passively, his back to the viewer; he waits to be healed so that he can then take part in the world around him.

Why are the two images so different? Is it because one is based on a religious theme, and the other focuses on contemporary nineteenth-century society? Might the circumstances of the artist’s lives impact their constructions? In 1792, Goya lost his hearing and had been deaf for thirty years when he made this drawing. Ask the class to discuss whether Goya’s deafness may have influenced his attitudes about disabilities? If so, how?

Building on, but diverging from the religious model that saw Jesus as the “spiritual physician,” the medical model of disability emerged in the nineteenth century and classified disability as an impairment, as something wrong with the body. Following the rise of modern scientific medicine and the professionalism of the discipline, doctors during the nineteenth century developed concepts of “disease” and “injury” to refer to deviations from normal body functioning. Disability became something to be healed by science rather than religion; it became a medical rather than a religious or social issue. Persons with disabilities became patients needing to be cured. By defining people by their disabilities rather than as full human beings, the medical model fosters classifications, dependence on professional care, and often involves painful treatments.

The medical model also lends itself to eugenics and Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, promoted by the nineteenth-century philosopher and political theorist Herbert Spencer, held that the theories governing the evolution of biological species—the “survival of the fittest”—held true for individuals and social systems as well. This belief helped to justify forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, and the incarceration of individuals with developmental disabilities in institutions. These “patients” often became subjects of artists and scientists who were interested in classifying people by type and appearance.

Among the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault’s greatest achievements are his Portraits of the Insane. There were ten of them originally, but only five have survived: A Woman Addicted to GamblingA Child SnatcherA Woman Suffering from Obsessive EnvyA Kleptomaniac, and A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command. In contrast to his teacher Jacques-Louis David, who had privileged heroic and athletic bodies in his Neoclassical paintings, Géricault, and others of his generation, created sensitive portrayals of suffering bodies that sympathized with victims rather than celebrating heroes.Portraits of the Insane

The fear of persons with physical deformities has long been popular in the media, with figures such as Quasimodo, Captain Hook, Dr. Strangelove, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. In addition to typecasting persons with disabilities as villains, this stereotype contributes to the fear of persons with disabilities living in the community. Students might be asked to discuss representations of people with disabilities in popular films such as: Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Stereotypes were reinforced through quasi-scientific theories like eugenics. During the “genetic scare” of the 1920s, people with developmental disabilities were often the objects of fear, believed to be driven by rage and intent upon harming others. “Ugly laws,” which made it illegal for people with visible disabilities to be seen in public, were passed across the country, many of which were not repealed until the mid-1970s. Twenty-eight states adopted statutes that sought sterilization, marriage restriction, and institutionalization of the disabled, and eugenicists advocated euthanasia for disabled infants. People with disabilities were systematically incarcerated, as well as subject to deportation under immigration law. Following the increased demand for segregated housing brought on by prejudicial medical diagnoses and public discrimination, states began building residential institutions at a rapid pace. Francis Galton, the father of the Eugenic Movement, used Composite Photographs to justify his belief in grades of humanity.Francis Galton Composite Types

Eugenic research had a direct influence on attitudes toward people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. As American professionals were calling for sterilization, Nazi Germany was blaming people with disabilities for wasting valuable resources. At the outbreak of World War II, Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled. The Nazi euthanasia program was instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life”; over 200,000 people with disabilities were killed during the holocaust.

There are similar concerns today in the bioethics community over Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” the suicide of Brittany Maynard, the fashion for “designer” babies, and the widespread acceptance of abortion of fetuses with possible cognitive or physical disabilities. Students might be asked to discuss: Who decides what constitutes a “life worth living?” How do media representations of ideal bodies influence our notions of what makes life worth living?

Lavinia Fontana, Antoinetta Gonzalez, 1656.Lavinia Fontana, Antoinetta Gonzalez, 1656.

The “Freakshow,” Power, and Privilege

During the fifteenth century, people with physical and mental disabilities were boarded onto ships and exhibited for money before being abandoned at far-flung ports. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools (1490–1500) depicts the lives of people with cognitive disabilities aboard such a ship.

In 1494, German satirist Sebastian Brant adapted Platos’ allegory of the ship of fools into a popular book that featured woodcut illustrations by Dürerand was the inspiration for Bosch’s painting by the same name. The allegory features a vessel without a pilot that is populated by deranged, frivolous, and oblivious inhabitants who are seemingly ignorant of their course. A parody of the Church’s “ark of salvation,” Ship of Fools inverted societal norms and critiqued the church’s mores and authority. The book became extremely popular, with six authorized and seven pirated editions published before 1521. Court fools were allowed to openly critique hierarchical societal structures, so by writing his work in the voice of Saint Grobian, whom Brant created as the patron saint of vulgarity, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.

Brant Ship of Fools300px-Jheronimus_Bosch_011 Ship of Fools

In the introduction to Michel Foucault’s Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Jose Barchilon writes of the ship of fools:

Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then “knew,” had an affinity for each other. Thus, “Ships of Fools” crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.

Fools were also viewed as popular “pets” in the royal court, and dwarfs were featured in the work of Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velázquez.

Velázquez painted many portraits of dwarfs, including his Portrait of Sebastián de Morra (1645), which can be compared to the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of ten-year-old Antonietta Gonzalez (1595), whose father Pedro, “The Hairy Man from Munich,” was the first documented case of “werewolf syndrome” or hypertrichosis (as it would be called once the fantastic ailment was scientifically and clinically classified by doctors in the early twentieth century).220px-Velazquez-MorraSuissa


What sort of life might these people have led? Are these portraits sensitive and humanizing, or do they contribute to the subordination of people with disabilities?

Although people with disabilities had been exhibited on “ships of fools” and at court, the heyday of such practices came with the opening of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1841. During the 1840s the term “freak” came to refer to “a monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species; a living curiosity exhibited in a show.” This definition owes its place in the English vernacular to Barnum and his American Museum (1841–65), which relied on sensational exhibits to draw crowds.

The use of the word “freak” in this part of the lecture and in the scholarship is a conscious choice based on several factors. First, freak is the vernacular of the carnival and is thus historically based. Second, many have offered the word as one that has been reappropriated and inscribed with power, much like the word “queer” has been embraced by the LGBTQ community as well as academics performing queer studies. Moreover, the term connotes the absence of known categories of representation—it is outside representation if you will. The use of this word offers a theoretical discussion point for the class.

In Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, gender theorist Judith Butler has theorized the body as a discursive space, a text, where cultural and heterosexual hegemony exerts power. As she argues, identity, class, race, sex, and gender are socially constructed and thus performative. In many ways “freakiness” is performative, even when people are displaying their actual physical bodies. Photographs are also performative, so “freak” photography is compelling, not just in the sense that we are drawn to look—to stare unabashedly if you will—without the fear of getting caught (disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has theorized the “stare” in lives of people with disabilities), but also in that photographs are conscious constructions not just by the subjects, but also the photographers and the mores of society acting upon their representation.Butler Gender Trouble

At the same time, however, there are opportunities for rupture—places and moments where expectations are not met, where the bodies and the photographs of those bodies do not perform the way the viewer or audience might expect. These photos then, especially in the case of portraits, allow people with disabilities to challenge normative ideologies, to construct their own personas, and to create expanded discursive spaces.

Charles Eisenmann was a professional portrait photographer who made cartes de visite, or calling cards, for his exceptional clientele. He kept a studio in New York’s Bowery district, which in the 1880s was home to a mix of artists, performers, and prostitutes, close to Barnum’s American Museum. The performers used the calling cards as marketing and promotional tools. Eisenmann also sold them as collectibles to people who often assembled them into albums. He also kept his own archive. Here are some examples of his studio’s work.

Myrtle Corbin was billed as “the 4-legged girl from Texas,” a popular attraction for Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and Coney Island. One of the most popular sideshow freaks, she earned as much as $450 dollars a week (that would be about $14,000 per week today). At the age of nineteen, she married a doctor, with whom she had five children.220px-Myrtle_Corbin220px-Eli_Bowen_by_Atkinson,_1867Charle B GTripp

Eli Bowen was a tumbler and strong man who toured Europe with Barnum. He was applauded internationally for his extraordinary routine during which he climbed a thirteen-foot pole, then swung around the pole holding his body parallel to the pole with one hand. He married and had four sons. He took great pride in his family and the majority of the photos featuring Eli feature his family as well.

A skilled cabinetmaker, Charles B. Tripp incorporated intricate wood inlay designs into his cabinets. In 1872, he joined Barnum’s circus and worked in his traveling World Fair for almost twenty-five years, then worked another twenty-five years with other circuses including Ringling Bros. In his acts, he performed such tasks as penmanship, portrait painting, and paper cutting. At the turn of the century, Charles became interested in photography and was known as “The Armless Photographer.” He worked as staff photographer to the Barnum circus and also taught others in the show photography.

Eisenmann closed his studio in 1898 after Barnum closed the American Museum and the sideshow went on the road. The traveling sideshow became a popular form of leisure and entertainment during the Great Depression, and several artists including Reginald Marsh, Eudora Welty, and the Farm Security Administration photographers Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott took photographs of the sideshow performers or the banners that advertised the acts of the sideshow.

The FSA collection in the Library of Congress contains about 180,000 images, but only 713 of these were taken at fairs. It appears that only Delano, Rothstein, Lee, Shahn, and Post Wolcott covered the fairs for the FSA, even though these fairs exhibited the products of the farms the FSA was aiding, and fair coverage would seem to fit FSA head Roy Stryker’s mandate of “introducing America to Americans.”

This may reflect attitudes toward persons with disabilities in the 1930s. During the 1930s, people with disabilities faced significant segregation and oppression. Considered by the medical and political establishments as “unfit” for normal roles in society, disabled people were excluded from jobs provided by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration programs, which, according to the WPA Workers’ Handbook, were reserved for “able-bodied” Americans who were “certified by a local agency.”

Of the images taken at fairs, the vast majority are of FSA exhibits, rides, or spectators, though Rothstein, Delano, Wolcott, and Shahn photographed banners, and Lee offered the viewer images of the sideshow, including one of a one-legged man biting the head off of a snake.

Ask students to discuss Wolcott’s Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, Shahn’s Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, and Lee’s Untitled, Donaldson, Louisiana. How do these government-sanctioned photographs of difference contribute to and complicate our understanding of disability and its place within American history?

Wolcott’s Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and CarnivalLee’s Untitled, Donaldson, Louisiana.


Other photographers of the period interested in the sideshow included Welty and Marsh. Lead students in a compare and contrast Marsh’s Sideshow Sign at Coney Island and Welty’s Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair.ahtr-disability-in-art-history-25-638 (1)

How does gender, both of the photographers and the signs’ subjects (“Mule-face boy” and “Mule-face woman,” respectively), influence these representations and our understanding of them?

Another photographer interested in unusual subjects was Diane Arbus. Her award-winning work has been exhibited in major shows, has earned her two Guggenheim Fellowships, and has attracted heated and divisive criticism, even after (and perhaps fueled by) her death by suicide in 1972. As she told a New Yorker reporter, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience […] Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Arbus’s photography offers the opportunity to facilitate a debate in class, as scholars are divided on the degree to which her photographs exploited her subjects.

Germaine Greer argues that, although Arbus operates within the tradition of freak photography, there is an important difference between her and her predecessors like Eisenmann. As she argued, “Eisenmann’s subjects had names, stage names and real names. The giants, dwarves, midgets, conjoined twins, bird-girls, bearded women and dog-faced boys whose photographs appear on thousands of postcards were all professionals. Often the notes on the postcards spoke of them as well-educated and happily married. Arbus’s nameless subjects are denied such confederacy and performativity. She often uses the devices of the older tradition in her treatment of otherwise unremarkable subjects. She reduced her subjects to generic phenomena by the names she chose for them: Jewish Giant, Mexican Dwarf, Albino Sword-Swallower.”

Jewish GiantMexican DwarfArbus Albino Sword Swalloer

As she says, “Arbus is not an artist who makes us see the world anew; she embeds us in our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity and lack of concern. Hers is a world without horizons where there is no escape from self.” (“Wrestling with Diane Arbus,” The Guardian, 2005).

Similarly Susan Sontag suggests Arbus’s “interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe” and that her photographs are “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”

On the other hand, John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, saw Arbus as a trailblazer in a new photographic aesthetic, and Sandra S. Philips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art argues that Arbus “was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of a new kind of photographic art.”

Do these photographs do violence to their subjects, as Sontag argued, or do they offer visibility to people who are otherwise marginalized?

Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98.

Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98.


Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

The final section offers examples of modern and contemporary artists who engage with issues of disability in their work. A significant issue in contemporary theory is the deconstruction of the embodied nature of humanism. In humanistic thought, the mind and body are separate, with the body acting as a vehicle for the mind. Information technologies, scientific discoveries, and bioengineering challenge the role of the body, yet they are unable to fully replace the human body. Moreover, war, plastic surgery, and prosthetics have had a significant impact of the role of the body as well as of representations of people with disabilities, specifically as powerful subjects in critiques of war. Take for instance the German painter Otto Dix’s critique of WWI as seen in Scat Players and War Cripples.

War Cripples 1920 Dix1920-SkatPlayers

Just as Brant used the Ship of Fools to challenge the cultural hegemony of the Church and the Crown during the fifteenth century, Dix’s work incorporates the mangled bodies of war veterans to show the human costs of nationalism during the early twentieth century. World War I was the first industrialized war, and the mechanization of warfare had dramatic effects.

Brant Ship of Fools

Due to increased medical knowledge, wounds that would have killed soldiers in the past now left them disfigured amputees. These wounded veterans are a recurring theme in Dix’s work. The card players, who are outfitted with crude prosthetics, represent the German elite of the Weimar era. The soldier on the right wearing the Iron Cross represents the military. Opposite him sits a figure alluding to finance and capitalism. In the middle is a figure symbolizing the old aristocracy. The card players are propped up by technology, but the painting critiques the degree to which this can be considered progress.

While Dix used amputees as vehicles to parody political leaders in a fashion similar to Brant’s Ship of Fools, others have used prosthetics to investigate difference, the posthuman, and the transhuman. “Posthumanism” denotes an interest in the possibilities of life beyond human evolution and addresses questions of ethics, justice, language, and trans-species communication. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to transform the human condition through technologies that enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacity. ACFAE71 Orlan Self hybridisationand Stelarc (Third Arm) are two contemporary artists who investigate and push the boundaries of “humanness” by undergoing surgeries to transform their bodies into hybrids and cyborgs.

Lisa Bufano’s dance work has incorporated a variety of prosthetics and props, such as using orange Queen Anne table legs as legs and arms, as seen in Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. Bufano was a professional dancer before she became a bilateral below-the-knee and total finger-thumb amputee due to a staphylococcus bacterial infection at the age of twenty-one. Unwilling to give up her passion for dance, she developed ways to use her work to investigate corporeal difference and sexual identity. Sadly, she committed suicide in 2013.  Lisa Bufano

Matthew Barney has also expressed an interest in corporeal difference and sexual identity, which he explored extensively in his Cremaster series. This still features Aimee Mullins, who was born with a medical condition that resulted in the amputation of both of her lower legs. She is known for her work as an athlete, actress, fashion model, and proponent of prosthetic innovation.

In Cremaster 3, Barney’s character undergoes Masonic initiation. A major theme of the film is the Masonic theory that you have to lose your “lower” self in order to reach a higher level. Mullins is literally without legs — the lower self — and is depicted alternately with crystal prostheses and cheetah legs; Barney must kill her to achieve the level of Master Mason. Barney’s film is controversial and has been interpreted as alternately fetishizing and demonizing the posthuman prosthetically/technologically enhanced body.2006AY2236_jpg_ds Aimee Mullins Dazed and Confused 1998 Nick Knight Photo V&A

Other performance artists have used their disabilities to challenge stereotypes and normative behavior. The Irish artist Mary Duffy was born without arms. In 1995, she did a Performance piece in which she posed in the nude and performed a monologue, during which she described the ways her body has been defined by medicine and society as lacking, inadequate, and undesirable. In the piece, she discussed her confrontations with medical and social gazes and described how they impacted her self-confidence. She used her body to invoke the famous “armless” broken sculpture Venus de Milo, and to challenge normative beauty standards.

As part of the performance, she relayed questions that people had asked her, including “Were you born like that, or did your mother take those dreadful tablets? Did you have an accident?” Duffy’s performance exposed the nude disabled body visually and artistically, as it also revealed the social practices and values that render disability politically invisible.

As a challenge to invisibility, Young British Artist Marc Quinn sculpted fellow artist and activist Alison Lapper Pregnant in Carrara marble for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The work featuring Lapper, who was born without arms and with shortened legs, has been the subject of controversy and debate by those who view it alternately as offensive or progressive. The work, like Quinn’s other sculptures of amputee models for the series The Complete Marbles (2002), adopts the idealism of Neoclassicism to critique public representations of disability.ahtr-disability-in-art-history-37-638alexandra-westmoquetteKiss 3 Marc Quinn

In contrast, the Jake and Dinos Chapman’s portrait of Stephen Hawking rejects idealism. Labeled “the most detestable, the most repellent, and the most pointless work of art” by The Guardian, this lifelike twelve-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture depicts Hawking in his wheelchair on top of a rocky mountain. Although decried by The Guardian as crude and sarcastic, Art Monthly labeled it brilliant, and some disability rights scholars have defended it as an honest portrayal that captures the reality of both the subject and the artists.

Jake and Dinos Chapman Stephen Hawking Climbing the Rockies

Students might discuss the politics of representation present in this piece, and debate whether it is sardonic or sincere.


Ask students to reflect on the various ways that disability has been constructed throughout history and how visual representations are powerful tools in the construction of societal values. This lecture has brought together religious and secular paintings, photographs, contemporary sculptures, performance, and digital media to examine the various visual constructions of disability and difference that they embody. If students are interested in further projects related to arts and disability, you might direct them to, an online resource. Whereas disability has rarely been a part of the American cultural imaginary, the DisArt Festival hopes to subvert normative expectations and cultivate a space where differences are celebrated.

Keri Watson (author) is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Central Florida, focusing on modern and contemporary art and issues of disability in visual culture.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.