40 Facts about Tamerlane – Timur the Lame

September 17, 2017 by richard

40 Facts about Tamerlane – Timur the Lame

Updated on April 19, 2015
A reconstruction of Tamerlane's face.
A reconstruction of Tamerlane’s face. | Source

Who Was Tamerlane?

Timur was a 14th Century Turko-Mongol military leader who conquered most of the Muslim world, central Asia, and parts of India. His Timurid Empire rivaled the size and power of the Mongolian domain forged by Genghis Khan a century earlier.

Known by his nickname, Tamerlane, it’s unclear why many people in the Western world have never heard of this brutal and ingenious warlord. To rectify this neglect, the following is a list of interesting facts about Tamerlane. The list includes notable events in his life; analyzes his acerbic personality, and remarks on current impressions of this fascinating historical figure.

A statue of Tamerlane in Uzbekistan.
A statue of Tamerlane in Uzbekistan. | Source

40 Interesting Facts about Timur the Lame

1. Timur (meaning `iron’) was born in 1336 near the city of Kesh in Transoxiania. This historic Persian city is now known as Shahrisabz in modern day Uzbekistan.

2. Tamerlane is the European derivation of Timur’s Persian nickname, Timur-e Lang, which means `Timur the Lame’.

3. During his mid-twenties, Tamerlane was crippled by injuries to his right leg and right hand. Legend states that he was shot by arrows when his band of thieves was ambushed by a shepherd. It’s more likely that the injuries were sustained in battle when he was a soldier for the Khan of Sistan (in north-east Iran).

4. In 1941, Russian archaeologists excavated Tamerlane’s tomb, confirming that he had a debilitating hip injury and two fingers missing from his right hand.

5. The excavation revealed that he was tall for the time (1.73 m) and broad-chested. He had prominent cheek bones and Mongoloid features (see reconstruction).

6. Timur’s tomb was allegedly inscribed with the words “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble”.

7. His coffin supposedly read: “Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I”. Hitler invaded the USSR within two days of the exhumation, and when Timur was finally reburied, the Soviet victory at Stalingrad shortly followed.

Tamerlane's tomb in Samarkand.
Tamerlane’s tomb in Samarkand. | Source

8. Tamerlane’s ambition was to rebuild the empire of Genghis Khan, who had died a century earlier.

9. His military conquests saw him conquer land that comprises the modern day countries of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, large parts of Turkey and Syria, and the north-western portion of India (Delhi).

10. It is estimated that his armies killed 17 million people, which was about 5% of the global population at the time.

11. He referred to himself as the `Sword of Islam’ and converted much of his empire to the religion. This included Genghis Khan’s descendents, the Borjigin clan.

12. Tamerlane’s own religious affiliation is unclear, and he may have been using Islam as a means to consolidate and exert power. Indeed, he was a highly intelligent politician who spoke Turkish, Mongolian and Persian.

The breadth of the Timurid Empire.
The breadth of the Timurid Empire. | Source

13. Tamerlane’s father was a prominent member of the Barlas tribe, which had been close with Genghis Khan’s Borjigin clan. However, the Barlas tribe had been converted to Islam and spoke Turkish.

14. Despite this, Tamerlane idolized Genghis Khan and used similar methods to build his empire. For example, he was a military mastermind who led a multi-ethnic army. He instilled great loyalty, and was adept at taking advantage of temporary weaknesses in the political state of his enemies. He also used spies and propaganda to sow the seeds for invasion, and planned his campaigns years in advance.

15. Tamerlane was a natural leader. He spent his teenage years leading a band of petty thieves. They stole livestock from farmers, and property from travelers and merchants.

16. In his twenties, Tamerlane fought under the rule of various Khans and Sultans. His leadership skills led to him being given command of a thousand soldiers for an invasion of Khorasan (in north-east Iran). The success of this mission led to further commands and prestige.

17. When his leader, Kurgan, died, the subsequent struggle for power was eventually halted by the invasion of Tughlugh Khan from the Mongol Chagatai Khanate. The head of the Barlas tribe fled the invasion, and Timur was chosen by the Mongols as his replacement.

18. When Tughlugh Khan died and entrusted Transoxiania to his son Ilyas, Timur and his brother-in-law, Amir Husayn, sensed their opportunity and took the region by force.

Timur is made king in northern Afghanistan.
Timur is made king in northern Afghanistan. | Source

19. Now in his mid-thirties, Timur was a tribal leader with a territory to defend. He used his power wisely, showing kindness and charity to nobles, merchants, and the clergy. This gained him many allies, and much power.

20. Amir Husayn treated his subjects harshly and became jealous of Timur’s growing power. They quickly became rivals, forcing Timur to capture Amir. He was later assassinated, giving Timur complete control in northern Iran and Afghanistan.

21. Tamerlane dominated over the Chagatai chieftains to the north-east, and eventually claimed the Mongol territory by marrying, Saray Mulk Khanum, a Chagatai princess and descendant of Genghis Khan.

22. Tamerlane was unable to become the Mongol emperor because he was not a descendent of Genghis Khan. Likewise, he couldn’t claim legitimacy in the Muslim world because he wasn’t a descendent of Muhammad. Instead he ruled the Chagatai Khanate via a puppet ruler, and attributed his military successes in Persia to the will of Allah.

23. Timur led his armies in all directions over the next three decades. In the south and west, Persia was completely conquered. To the north-west, Georgia and Azerbaijan were taken. To the north, the Mongol “Golden Horde” was decisively defeated, though he avoided threatening the Mongol homeland to the north-east.

Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi.
Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi. | Source

24. In 1398, and at the age of 62, Timur was now a legendary conqueror with a vast territory. He turned his army towards India in the south-east. Unlike his other conquests, Timur slaughtered the Pakistani and Indian people, justifying the barbarism as a holy war against the Hindu religion.

25. The Sultan of Delhi used war elephants, covered with chain mail, to terrify Timur’s troops. In a stroke of cruel genius, Timur placed hay on the backs of camels, set the hay on fire, and prodded them until they painfully charged at the elephants. The elephants turned and stampeded their own troops, granting Timur an easy victory. The population of Delhi were massacred.

26. Much like Genghis Khan, Tamerlane was opportunistic. His campaigns of Persia and Delhi took advantage of power struggles that had weakened their defenses.

27. Timur’s cruelty grew in his later years. Legend states that his invasion of Baghdad (Iraq) in 1399 required each of his soldiers to show him two severed heads from the largely Christian population.

Tamerlane imprisoned and humiliated the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid.
Tamerlane imprisoned and humiliated the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid. | Source

28. In revenge for insulting letters sent by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid (Turkey), Timur conquered the Ottoman Empire in 1402, and Bayezid died in captivity.

29. His victory began a civil war in Turkey in which Timur’s candidate, Mehmed I, secured power. Mehmed belonged to a tribe that the Mongols had previously allowed to rule the region.

30. Tamerlane had friendly relations with some European states, namely France and Spain. Both he and the Europeans saw themselves as reluctant allies against the Ottomans.

31. Right up until his death, Timur continued to expand his empire. The leader of the new Chinese Ming Dynasty had insulted Timur, provoking his wrath. However, after 3 months of successful battles, the campaign ended when Timur succumbed to fever and died.

32. Despite preferring spring assaults, Timur had prematurely attacked the Chinese during the harsh winter of 1404. This suggests that his anger at the Chinese contributed to his demise.

33. Timur Tamerlane died on the 17th of February 1405 at the age of 68. His body was embalmed and buried in an ebony coffin in Samarkand, fifty miles north of his birthplace in Kesh.

34. Timur had 4 sons. The eldest two, Jahangir and Umar Shaykh, died before him, while Miran Shah died soon after. Timur was succeeded by his youngest son, Shah Rukh.

35. The Black Sheep Turkmen destroyed the western half of his empire when they sacked Baghdad in 1410, though Shah Rukh continued the Timurid dynasty by retaining control of the eastern half. He set up his capital in Herat, Afghanistan.

Some beautiful Timurid architecture.
Some beautiful Timurid architecture. | Source

36. Tamerlane’s descendents include Babur, founder of the Indian Mughal Empire, and the scientifically adept Timurid ruler, Ulugh Beg.

37. The Timurid Empire lasted until 1507. The Persian Safavid dynasty took most of Iran in 1501, while a contingent of Uzbek tribes invaded from the north to take Herat in 1507.

38. Like many other formidable leaders, Tamerlane’s legacy is unclear. He is regarded as a hero in central Asian states such as Uzbekistan.

39. In much of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and India, he is vilified as a monster for massacring the populations. Nevertheless, some Muslim scholars applaud him for uniting the Muslim world.

40. Despite forcing Christians out of much of the Muslim world, he was highly regarded in Europe for defeating the Ottomans, though that impression has become less favorable in recent times.

A Short Lecture About The Timurids

It’s unclear why Tamerlane and the Timurid Empire are under-represented in popular historical discourse. Perhaps it’s because his achievements were very similar, but slightly less notable, than those of Genghis Khan. Why speak of the second greatest Asian ruler when you can speak of the first?

It’s possible that his empire was too short-lived to be given much attention (137 years). After all, the Persian, Ottoman, Mongol, and Mughal Empires survived far longer. Perhaps, his cruelty discouraged the civilizations who could have popularized his story; or maybe his lameness caused fewer writers to glorify his achievements. While others have succeeded in immortalizing themselves with barbarism, we may never know why Tamerlane escaped a similar degree of notoriety.


Was Tamerlane disabled?

by richard

Disability history month: Was Tamerlane disabled?

    • 4 December 2012

Tamerlane – derived from his nickname Timur the Lame – rose from obscurity to become a 14th Century conqueror of nations, who piled high the skulls of his enemies. It was quite a feat at a time when physical prowess was prized, writes Justin Marozzi.

Think of the greatest conquerors of all time and chances are you’ll quickly list Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. It is rather less likely, unless you come from Central Asia or the Muslim world more widely, that you’d spare a thought for Tamerlane.

Yet in many ways this Tartar warlord, born near Samarkand in 1336 in what is now Uzbekistan, outshone both the Macedonian king and the Mongol warlord.

Unlike Alexander, Tamerlane was not of royal blood, but came from humble stock.

He began his world-conquering rampages as a petty sheep-rustler among the steppes and high mountain passes of Central Asia.

And unlike Genghis, he did not have one people to lead to military triumphs, but had to weld together a successful army from a bewildering mass of different, often fractious, nationalities. By the time he faced the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I on the battlefield in 1402, his soldiers came from the length and breadth of his empire, from Armenia to Afghanistan, Samarkand to Siberia.

Overcoming these disadvantages was one thing. More striking and startling by far was the fact that Tamerlane was severely disabled in his right side.

At birth he was given the name Timur, meaning iron, which later gave rise to the pejorative Persian version, Timur-i-lang (Timur the lame), after a devastating injury he suffered to both right limbs in his youth. From there it was only a slight corruption to Tamburlaine and Tamerlane, the names by which he is better known in the West.

Such a physical disability, at a time when martial skills were a prerequisite of political power, would have been a crushing blow for most men.

The young Tamerlane would have known the local proverb “only a hand that can grasp a sword may hold a sceptre”. Self-advancement in this brutal world was inconceivable without excelling in hand-to-hand combat and mounted archery.

The sources leave us in no doubt about the injury, although there is uncertainty over exactly how it occurred. It probably happened in about 1363, when Tamerlane was serving as a mercenary for the Khan of Sistan in Khorasan, in what is today the Dasht-i-Margo (“desert of death”) in south-west Afghanistan.

Another source – the extremely hostile Ibn Arabshah, a Syrian chronicler from the 15th Century – says a watchful shepherd spied Tamerlane prowling about his flock of sheep, smashed his shoulder with one well-directed arrow and loosed off another into his hip for good measure.

“Mutilation was added to his poverty and a blemish to his wickedness and fury,” writes the Syrian with a contemptuous flourish.

Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador who visited Samarkand in 1404, records how Tamerlane encountered a large party of horsemen from Sistan, who slaughtered many of his men.

“Him too they knocked off his horse, wounding him in the right leg, of which wound he has remained lame all his life (whence his name of Timur the Lame); further he received a wound in his right hand, so that he has lost the little finger and the next finger to it.”

A Soviet archaeological team led by Mikhail Gerasimov opened Timur’s exquisite tomb in Samarkand in 1941 and found that he was a “lame”, well-built man of about 5ft 7in.

An injury to his right leg, where the thighbone had merged with his kneecap, left it shorter than the left, hence the pronounced limp referred to in his scornful nickname.

When walking, he would have dragged his right leg, and his left shoulder was found to be unnaturally higher than the right. Further wounds were discovered to his right hand and elbow.

Image captionThe Gur Emir Mausoleum in Samarkand holds Tamerlane’s tomb

For his 14th Century enemies, such as the Ottoman emperor and the rulers of Baghdad and Damascus, Tamerlane’s lameness provided an easy opportunity to sneer – but mockery was easier than beating him in battle.

Even Arabshah, his fiercest critic, acknowledged that he was “mighty in strength and courage”, a “spirited and brave” leader who “inspired awe and obedience”.

One can sense the great 18th Century historian Edward Gibbon almost warming to Tamerlane, whose ferocious military genius has never really received its historical due:

“The nations which he vanquished exercised a base and impotent revenge; and ignorance has long repeated the tale of calumny, which had disfigured the birth and character, the person, and even the name, of Tamerlane.

“Yet his real merit would be enhanced, rather than debased, by the elevation of a peasant to the throne of Asia; nor can his lameness be a theme of reproach, unless he had the weakness to blush at a natural, or perhaps an honourable, infirmity.”

By the time he died, en route to war with the Ming emperor of China in 1405, Tamerlane was undefeated on the battlefield after 35 years of constant campaigning.

Rarely can any man, let alone an aspiring world conqueror, have overcome physical disability with such terrifying ease, as hundreds of thousands of Asians, brutally slaughtered and decapitated, discovered to their cost.

Justin Marozzi is the author of Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20538810

Hogarth to Vagabondiana Examining Two visualisations of disability in C18TH by Simon Jarrett

September 16, 2017 by richard

Hogarth to Vagabondiana by Simon Jarrett


We are going to look today at two visualisations of disability in the eighteenth century, firstly from the artist William Hogarth in the middle of the century and then in a book from 1817 called Vagabondiana, by John Thomas Smith, which took a rather nostalgic look back at the London street beggars from the end of the eighteenth century, using sketches and potted life histories.

There was a very high prevalence of physical disability in this period: as well as being born disabled, often through a lack of obstetric care during birth, you could also become disabled through a large number of disabling diseases, accidents caused by carriages and horses in the teeming streets, dangerous workplaces, potholed streets and collapsing buildings. Of course there were also many disabled soldiers and sailors from the numerous wars of the period. The playwright John Gay, author of the Beggar’s opera, warned people to be careful when walking round Lincolns Inn Field at night lest they trip over the crutches of the many hundreds of beggars that gathered there.

I hope to show not only the often ingenious types of mobility aid that were used as technological fixes for the many who needed them, most of whom were very poor and therefore needed to fashion aids from the most basic of resources, but also the moral and symbolic meanings that these objects carried for the eighteenth century British public, which framed their understanding of and response to disability. You will notice that it is only at the end of the century that any form of wheeled mobility methods of transport start to emerge – the most simple explanation for this is that until then it was only the centres and major streets of large cities such as London that were paved – the other streets and alleys were highly congested and obstacle-strewn dirt roads, that would turn to mud at the first sign of any rain, making small-sized wheeled transport virtually impossible. The later extension of paving across a wider area brought about an increase in use of wheels, as we shall see.


We begin with William Hogarth, who may be familiar to many of you, who was a great artistic chronicler of the 18th century’s everyday events and ordinary life before the age of photography. He is perhaps most famous for his ‘morality’ tales, such as the Harlots Progress, the Rakes progress, Marriage la Mode and Idleness and Industry, in each of which series of paintings young people fall into a life of vice and immorality, and endure terrible consequences for doing so. Despite being a conservative figure both in political and moral terms, Hogarth showed a great empathy with the people of London and everyday London life, and often displayed a sneaking regard for the vice, drunkenness and sexual immorality he was ostensibly denouncing.


Here is a print you may know: Gin Lane, which depicts the appalling consequences of the cheap gin-drinking craze that afflicted the poor parts of London for about 40 years, causing tens of thousands of deaths and desperate misery and poverty. You may be less familiar with its companion piece, Beer Street, which depicts the virtuous consequences of drinking good old British beer – virtually a religious and political duty for the English at this time.


In Gin Lane we can see Hogarth’s portrayal of abject misery and moral collapse. The baby falls to its death from the arms of its paralytically drunk, semi-clothed mother. With its famous motif ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drink for tuppence, we see buildings collapse – collapse and falling over are an important indicator of moral collapse which you will see in many of Hogarth’s paintings – and the only buildings which are stable are the pawnbrokers, the undertakers and of course the gin distillery. Bearing in mind this idea of collapse and instability being associated with moral degradation, look at this group here in the background – a mass brawl is breaking out and it consists of disabled people attacking each other with their sticks and crutches – you can see one to the edge of the brawl about to go over backwards desperately clinging onto his crutch. Here Hogarth is associating the idea of disability – the inability to stand on your own two feet if you like – with moral disorder and decay.  If we then look at Beer Street you will see the complete opposite of Gin Lane. Comfortably overweight and prosperous men suck on their pipes and quaff their ale, fondle their alluring, key-dangling women. The buildings stand proud, particularly the brewery with its beautifully balanced barrel hanging from it – the only building that is crumbling, in contrast to Gin Lane, is the unused pawnbrokers. If you drink good British beer, life will be good and trade and commerce will prosper, in contrast to that dreadful foreign import of Gin, or Geneva as it was known. Note, however, that in the depiction of Beer Street there is not one stick or crutch to be seen. In a prosperous, moderate, balanced, well ordered society, the body is not afflicted with the diseases of poverty and immorality – everything is balanced, people stand on their own two feet. In this way, the stick, crutch or other sorts of mobility aid could symbolise some loss of human status, a loss of that ability to order yourself, a prop to just about cling on to your status.


A stick or crutch signified a move away from full human status towards a more intermediate status, and the same process could happen the other way. An animal with a stick could indicate a lower species moving towards human status. This drawing is from Edward Tyson’s influential book from 1699 in which he described a young chimpanzee that had been brought from Angola in Southern Africa. Hogarth would almost certainly have read this book. There was much speculation as to whether there might be an intermediate species between apes and humans, or even some types of ape that might be a new species of human. The chimpanzee, or Pygmie as it was known at the time, was a particular object of speculation. Tyson concluded that it was not a form of human, but that it did have characteristics that closely resembled humans, suggesting that it might be an intermediate species, one of which was the ability to walk on two legs. In fact chimpanzees can’t do this, like other apes they apply their knuckles to aid their walking and therefore use all four limbs, but Tyson concluded that his Chimp would be able to walk if only it wasn’t feeble and ill from the long journey it made (it died after several weeks). However, being a scientist dedicated to accuracy, he could only bring himself to portray the chimp walking with the aid of a stick – this both acknowledged that Tyson had never actually seen it walk on two legs, but also symbolised the intermediary status between human and animal that he believed his Pygmie had.


Hogarth picked up on this and frequently portrayed animals tottering towards human status by getting onto their hind legs, just as he depicted humans tottering away from their status by having to use artificial aids to do what was seen as the fundamental human task of walking. Here, 1745, in his portrayal of his friend Lord George Graham, an admiral of the British navy, he depicts a series of slippery identities – Lord George Graham out of uniform and without his wig, the girlish cabin boy, the relatively high-status black drummer and last of course the dog, standing on his hind legs, and wearing a wig.


Picture10HPicture11ere in Southwark Fair 1732, a typical Hogarth portrayal of a riotous, disorderly London scene, you may just be able to spot this small dog striding in a very human like way across the picture with the aid of a stick. In such a disorderly world, Hogarth is telling us, such a thing would be no surprise.


The association of the stick with disorder and lesser human status can be seen in Hogarth’s Noon,1738, which depicts the coming together of two widely different sections of London’s community. On one side the disorderly but jolly native Londoners (one of whom is black interestingly) who are coming out of the ale house, the man fondling the woman’s breasts, she becoming so distracted that she spills her hot pie gravy onto the bawling baker’s boy, who in turn drops his wares onto the floor where they are hoovered up by a hungry young girl. Opposite them, coming out of church of course, are a group of austere, earnest French Huguenots, protestant refugees from religious persecution in France who have prospered in London and who Hogarth clearly sees as a rather po-faced, pretentious, miserable lot. Note that here he uses the stick in two ways – first in the rather affected gentleman it is purely an ostentatious, luxury fashion item, with no practical purpose. But notice that there is also a rather obnoxious child, dressed in the wig, frock coat and stockings of an adult. A child dressed as a man, just like an animal imitating a man, needs a stick to support it, once again the stick or mobility aid drawing our attention to intermediate status.


Which brings us to Hogarth’s Election series, a group of paintings satirising the abject corruption and mob-violence of the Whig/Tory political conflict that raged throughout the century. Here, in ‘The Polling’,1758, a disabled war veteran is trying to cast his vote. He has lost both hands, and on his left arm he has a hook. He has also lost his right leg, and has a wooden leg in its place. What is happening is that pompous lawyers are debating whether it is acceptable for him to swear the necessary pre-voting oath by laying a hook on the bible rather than a hand. While his vote is denied, behind him a group of enfeebled, demented, semi-conscious and idiotic people are lined up to vote, their hands guided onto the ballot papers. Clearly Hogarth is satirising electoral corruption, but he is also introducing the concept of the deserving disabled – the war hero, who has sacrificed his body in the service of his country, is denied and excluded, while the feeble minded, the non-deserving disabled, are indulged. Note his heroic posture, front foot thrust forward and his wooden leg firmly supporting him, his handless arms heroically thrust back. He uses no stick or crutch to balance himself, he can stand on his own two feet, even if one of them is wooden. We see something similar in this further painting from the election series, ‘Chairing the members’ where the candidates are chaired through the streets of Oxford by their respective supporting mobs, one of them looking as if he is possibly about to join the ranks of the disabled himself (note the recurring tumbling/collapse motif again) But note this man here, another disabled war veteran, about to lay into his political opponent with a cudgel. Again we see the heroic posture and stance, his weight firmly on his wooden leg, no supporting stick or crutch, and fully engaged in the action and everyday life. Note also that his opponent clearly does not think it necessary to go easy on him because he has a disability.


This placement of people with disabilities at the heart of everyday life can also be seen here in this depiction of a cockfight,1759, and the group of rowdy gamblers and cock fight enthusiasts. At the heart of it all is a blind man – actually representing the real life figure of Lord Albemarle.


He has an almost saintly, religious air, but note his vulnerability as the man next to him craftily pinches money from his winnings laid out in his leather pouch before him. To the side of the picture we see a man who is both physically disabled and deaf, sporting his crutch while his servant shouts a commentary on the cock fight into his ear through an ear trumpet. Multiple disabilities were not an insurmountable obstacle to being out and about and at the heart of the community – there was always some ingenious technological fix.

Picture18 Marriage Al La Mode Plate1

Here is the first plate of Marriage a la Mode Plate 1, Hogarth’s morality tale about the marriage between the feckless son of an aristocratic father and the equally feckless daughter of a nouveau riche merchant. This is a marriage of convenience, the idle ancient aristocratic family have squandered their wealth and need a fresh injection of cash, the merchant needs the elevated social status to go with his newly acquired wealth. The family tree of the Lord is displayed at his side, to demonstrate the noble lineage of his family, but next to it is propped his crutch – a very finely crafted and velvet-topped crutch – to portray the physical and moral degeneration of his family. His right leg, bandaged, rests of a footstool, indicating that disabling disease of over-indulgence, gout.

Picture18Marriage Al La Mode Plate 6 1755


Plate 6 Marriage A La Mode 1755. If we move now to the final tragic scene of the series, the countess sprawls dying in her chair, having committed suicide, unable to bear the news of the death of her lover, the appropriately named lawyer Silvertongue, who has been hung for murdering her husband the count, after he discovered their affair. Her child, probably a boy, is held to her face for a final kiss, as her father prudently removes the gold marriage ring from her finger to use another day.


An everyday story of 18th century folk, but look closely at the child – here on his leg you will see callipers, indicating that he is disabled, and here on his left cheek is a black spot, indicating syphilis. The child has suffered for the moral degradation of his parents, and they have passed disease and disability to him. Incidentally, also note here the idiot servant, being berated by the apothecary for having haplessly bought the poison which the countless has used to kill herself. One clue, of many, to his idiocy, is his wrongly buttoned servant’s livery.  The painting is full of disability motifs.

AN00016648_001_l Industry and idleness Hogarth

Here, above, is a plate from the ‘industry and idleness’ series, which charts the lives of an industrious and an idle apprentice. The industrious apprentice works hard, marries his master’s daughter and becomes London’s mayor. The idle apprentice is seduced by gambling, promiscuity and crime and ends life on the gallows. A straightforward morality tale. Here we see the industrious apprentice celebrating his marriage to his master’s daughter, and a collection of beggars, including a beggar band, gather at their door, hoping for celebratory gifts.  Here on the left is ‘Philip in a tub’, a known character from the London streets. Philip had no legs, and mobilised himself by sitting in a wooden tub or bowl and then using two short crutches to slide himself


along. This form ofPicture20 mobilisation was common for people without legs, and they were nicknamed ‘Billies in Bowls’ in the rich slang of the time. He is selling ballads, a common form of employment for disabled beggars, similar to selling the Big Issue today. Note how Hogarth has captured his incredibly powerful upper arms, developed through pushing himself using the crutches, [slide 20] reminiscent of David Weir, Britain’s fine Paralympian athlete.Picture21 Dave the Weir Wolf

And finally from Hogarth here is the fitting end of the idle apprentice, who is brought to Tyburn to be hung for his crimes before the huge crowds that gathered there on execution days. The character of interest to us is another disabled war veteran, here at the back of the crowd.

Picture21 Idle Apprentice Excecuted at Tyburn 1747

His head bandaged, he rests his mutilated leg on an upside-down V shaped wooden support with a curve built in to take his knee. From the top of the upside-down V extends a crutch which tucks under his armpit. I am not sure how he would move with this, but my guess is that he would hop with his left foot and then swing forward the contraption supporting his right side. The ingenuity of this adaptive technology to accommodate his particular disability is striking – and it is course fashioned at virtually no cost from a piece of wood.

Moving forward half a century from Hogarth to John Thomas Smith, we encounter an array of street beggars, many of them disabled, and beautifully sketched in his publication Vagabondiana of 1817.

Picture22 John Thomas Smith 1817

Smith, known as ‘Antiquity Smith’ was an antiquarian dedicated to preserving the fading past, and he published this in the belief that beggars would disappear from London streets in the wake of new legislation which would move them from the street to institutions such as workhouses, as part of the moral and physical clean-up of London which occurred with evangelical zeal in the 1790s and early 1800s. He could afford therefore to be quite sentimental and nostalgic about these characters, as any threat they might once have posed had now disappeared. [slide 24] This first image symbolises this change, as we quite literally ‘see the backs of’ three disabled beggars as they leave the town for the workhouse on its outskirts.

Picture22 Appeal of the dog 1Picture22 Appeal of dog 2

Once again the dog appears, performing a threefold function, much as they do for street beggars today: companion or friend to the often isolated beggar, magnet to the public to attract extra donations and, if the beggar is disabled, guide or assistant. This first dancing dog – able to stand on his own two feet – was known as the ‘the real learned French dog Bob’ who would dance to solicit donations as his blind master played the barrel organ. The second dog, holding the begging bowl, would whine pitifully when its master called out ‘pray pity the blind’. Both of these dogs would also have acted as guides for their masters.

Picture22 Usefulness of the dog

Here is an even more functional disability helper dog. The beggar here is John McNully, an Irishman whose legs were crushed by a log and who ended up on the London streets. He got himself two dogs, known imaginatively as Rover and Boxer, and trained them to pull him on a small sledge. Again this was a common mobility adaptation, and brought into being the slang term ‘sledge beggar’. The two dogs were apparently such an attraction that they doubled McNully’s takings. It was said that when he would get drunk on the generous proceeds of a day’s begging, Rover and Boxer would unerringly drag the comatose McNully back to his lodgings, even finding a diversionary route when they were blocked by street repairs.

Picture24 Goya Yo lo he visto en Paris 1824-28


This had now become a popular mode of disabled transport, as usable paved streets proliferated in cities, as this sketch by Goya – ‘Yo lo he visto en Paris’ (I saw it in Paris) from the 1820s indicates.

Picture25 Jewish Beggar with cart

And here is a Jewish beggar, in a wheeled cart, who was pulled (by human helpers) to various locations around Petticoat Lane to solicit donations. His venerable appearance, Smith remarked, meant that Christians as well as Jews were happy to donate to him. Inevitably a slang term emerged to describe this form of disability transport – it was a go-kart, an expression we still use today.  And so the representations go on – a beggar who solicited donations at Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey, his cleverly targeted market the intellectual sensitive types that would pass by in that area – note that unlike the war veterans he does use crutches to support himself as well as his wooden leg. This may well have been through pure physical necessity, but also he is presenting himself in what has been called the ‘rhetoric of pity’ to draw attention to his afflictions. Others pooled together to present a combination of physical and social misfortunes. The blind beggar stands with the physically disabled beggar, his cane indicating his blindness. (White canes were not introduced until after World War I by the way). He was a British soldier who had been blinded in Gibraltar but chose to present himself as foreign, calling out in an indeterminate accent ‘de money, de money, go very low too.’ His calculation was that the double misfortune of being blind and not being British would attract additional generosity.

Picture26 Poets corner woith BeggarPicture27 Pooling Disabilities

The opposite approach was taken by this black beggar James Johnstone, a former sailor who became disabled in the course of duty and ended up on the streets. Note that as well as the crutch and stick he displays himself with a model ship on his head.

Picture28 Black Sailor Beggar

This was a model of the suitably patriotic HMS Nelson that he had made himself, and he would pass by people’s windows ducking and raising his head to make it look as if it was riding the waves. He would also sing patriotic sailor songs such as ‘the wooden walls of England.’ His presentation aimed to show that as a black disabled beggar, he was a patriotic black British man, who had served his country, and was not to be feared or despised. This was a self-presentation as a deserving disabled person.

Picture29 blind beggar with stick and childPicture30 Blind Beggar with stick


Blind beggars as well as dogs also used child guides, who had a reputation derived from a long history of ‘trickster’ stories of being mischievous and deceitful and just as capable of tricking their blind masters as helping them – note the mischievous expression of the child in this drawing.  Or they would negotiate the teeming streets of London with ever-longer canes – the blind beggar in this print is described as ‘beating the kerbstones with his cane’ as he walked.


Picture30 Multiple impairments with aids

And finally, note just once more the ingenuity of design fashioned from the most basic of resources to provide adaptive solutions to complex disabilities. Here a beggar with two amputations to the lower legs at different heights rests his knees on two differently-sized wooden blocks to give him balance and mobilises himself with two sticks.

So to finish, in an age where notions of disability were at times closely linked to Enlightenment fears about order and disorder and political instability, and where the nature and origin of your disability could determine whether you were seen as a deserving or undeserving disabled person, we should not forget the sheer ingenuity with which disabled people negotiated a complex world and ensured that they remained very much a part of it.

Simon Jarrett   simonj@jarr.demon.co.uk    Birkbeck University of London  Research Supported by Welcome Trust

Disability aesthetics and the body beautiful: Signposts in the history of art Tobin Siebers 2008- Sculpture

September 15, 2017 by richard

Disability aesthetics and the body beautiful: Signposts in the history of art

L’esthétique du handicap et la beauté du corps : des indications dans l’histoire de l’art

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The discovery of fragmentary classical sculpture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries reorients the making of art toward broken bodies, changing the nature of sculpture as an aesthetic form. But this category shift in the ideal of beauty also makes an opening for the emergence of disability aesthetics: the recognition that the disabled body becomes a valuable resource for the creation and appreciation of new art forms. The idea of disability aesthetics may be traced via disability signposts in which ancient works reminiscent of disability and modern works devoted to disability cross historically to create a powerful line of descent for the emergence of disability as an aesthetic value in itself.


La découverte de sculptures classiques, fragmentaires, au xve et xvie siècles réoriente l’art vers les corps abîmés et transforme en même temps la nature propre de la sculpture en tant que forme esthétique. Ce déplacement dans la conception de l’idéal de beauté permet également l’émergence de l’esthétique du handicap, c’est-à-dire la reconnaissance que le corps handicapé devient une source de grande valeur pour la création et l’appréciation des formes nouvelles de l’art. On peut repérer cette idée de l’esthétique du handicap, au long de l’histoire de l’art dans certaines manières d’indiquer que les oeuvres anciennes peuvent évoquer le corps handicapé et dans des oeuvres modernes consacrées au handicap. Ainsi se manifeste un courant puissant qui met au jour le handicap comme valeur esthétique en soi.


Disability aesthetics
Fragmentary sculpture
Venus de Milo

Mots clés

Esthétique du handicap
Sculpture fragmentaire
Vénus de Milo

On the cusp between the 15th and 16th centuries, classical Greek and Roman statuary began to rise out of the ground–with the help of shovel and pick. The Apollo Belvedere was unearthed around 1490. The Laocoön was discovered in 1506. Probably the most beautiful sculpture of all, the Torso Belvedere (not to be confused with the Apollo Belvedere), was above ground for a century before it was discovered and championed by Michelangelo. Unearthed sculpture has one obvious and defining feature. It is nearly always broken. The Apollo Belvedere was discovered intact, the Laocoön nearly so, but the Torso Belvedere was little more than a beautiful fragment and, according to the father of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, most beautiful because it is so severely mutilated. The head, collar-bone, and shoulders of the Torso are split off and lost forever. Both limbs are severed at the knee. Almost 300 years later, the history of beauty was shaken once more, this time by the discovery of the female counterpart of the Torso. The Venus de Milo emerged from the ground in 1820, arriving late to the ball, but immediately declared to be the eternal standard of aesthetic and female beauty, despite the fact that she is missing both her arms.

The dazzling image of shattered bodies presented by fragmentary classical statuary penetrates almost immediately into the eye and mind of artists, who turn toward the artworks with feelings of awe rather than away from them in revulsion, who fight to preserve their fragmentary state rather than make the slightest effort to restore them to wholeness, who begin to mutilate their own works in order to imitate the perfection of the ancient broken bodies. Because the artists fall in love with broken bodies, so over time do we, the beholders of the art objects. No one bats an eye today at the fact that the Venus de Milo, although damaged, holds an honored place in the Louvre. She is not ruined by her flaws but beautified.

Leonard Barkan notices in Unearthing the Past this surprising evolution in the history of beauty, charting the impact of fragmentary statuary in the early modern period. He labels a “category shift” the development that transformed in this era sculptural fragments, separate from any possibility of becoming whole again, into objects of beauty capable of receiving attention and admiration (122). The “whole project of making art,” Barkan concludes, is reoriented “in response to broken bodies” (209).

This category shift constitutes, to my mind, one line of descent for the emergence of what I call “disability aesthetics,” the sea change affecting the history of art that increasingly provokes a preference for disabled bodies over non-disabled ones as we enter the modern age (Siebers, 2007). Another line of descent, almost concurrent, is the emergence of depictions of Christ’s suffering and defiled body in artworks representing the Passion cycle (Stiker, 2006, 2007). Disability aesthetics asserts the incontestable conclusion that modernist techniques and formal experiments render bodies whose shapes mimic deformation, whose coloration resonates with disease conditions, and whose subject matter takes on explicitly the representation of physically and mentally disabled people. The history of aesthetics evolves in the direction of disability, and we are all growing ever more conscious of this fact with every passing moment (Siebers, 2008).

If beauty is supposed to be flawless, and disability shows nothing but flaws, how do we account for the remarkable fact that modern art is preoccupied with human bodies that can only be described as disabled? How does beauty thought broken at first glance becomes beauty adored as perfect at second glance? And, finally, how might we expect the idea of beauty given to us by the history of art to change our everyday idea of beauty? Will we ever get to the stage where we see in our neighbor’s disabled body the same radiant beauty that we experience when we gaze upon the Torso Belvedere or the Venus de Milo?

Here are a few snapshots capturing important moments in the evolution of disability aesthetics. We might call them “disability signposts”–at first strange and then more frequent appearances of disability, not quite recognizable as such, certainly not designed as such, and then unrecognizable as anything else, until the subject of disability emerges explicitly as itself, chosen consciously by both non-disabled and disabled artists. A disability signpost is a work through which the influence of disability on the history of aesthetics may be read. Signposts are often crossing points where historical forces mingle. They are at once deeply chronological and anachronistic, simultaneously historical and non-historical. They make evident that disability as a concept bears weight backwards in time, giving meaning retroactively to images and ideas for the advancement of disability aesthetics. It is through these signposts, I want to suggest, that the aesthetic value of disability arises and comes to dominate the history of art.

The Torso Belvedere is badly damaged (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Belvedere_torso_by_jmax.jpg). Fig 1a



But Michelangelo supposedly declared that no attempts be made to restore it. Kneeling before it as before an altar he found that “this is the work of a man who knew more than nature” (Barkan, 200). Winckelmann saw in the Torso the perfect masculine form. He explained that the sculpture stirred the beholder to powerful feelings because it was incomplete. Headless, the sculpture nevertheless presents as a seat of noble and lofty acts of contemplation; armless, the work lifts the world around it; legless, it seems the height of mobility, ready to stand up and leave behind in the distance those viewing it (Winckelmann, 527–29). The seal of the Torso as perfection personified reaches its zenith in the story, perhaps apocryphal, that Michelangelo smashed with a hammer one of his finished works in order to complete it. In any event, Michelangelo’s “habit of abandoning, not finishing, or even mutilating his sculptures” may be ascribed, Barkan claims, to the category shift in aesthetic beauty brought about by the influence of works such as the Torso Belvedere (206). Michelangelo’s Slaves and Prisonersdo not need to be finished to be thought beautiful. Fig 1b


Although the Torso represents the height of masculine form, its beauty is neither represented as disabled nor reproduced as fragmentary, except in drawings, until much later in time. Michelangelo obviously incorporates his vision of the Torso into many of his works, including Victory and various figures in the Last Judgment, especially notable in the depictions of Christ and Saint Bartholomew. But none of these figures is missing head and limbs. At that moment in history, to make such an image would have been too radical a gesture, and we have to wait until Auguste Rodin to find a sculptor who revels in broken beauty, sometimes radically fragmentary, as in L’Homme qui marche (1900–1907), a heroic male body missing its head and arms but not its legs.

It is the Venus de Milo, however, that represents the most singular signpost in the evolution of disability aesthetics, for she becomes as time advances increasingly associated with the disabled body (Fig. 1). When the statue was found, discovered with it was the Venus’s left hand, but it was never attached to the body because it was less finished than other parts of the artwork. The Venus was from her discovery conceived as most complete and beautiful in her fragmentary state. The Venus is also the occasion for the first artistic statement in art history on the inevitability of seeing broken statuary as the representation of disabled people. René Magritte, the surrealist painter, took a dramatic turn toward realism or hyperrealism by depicting the Venus as a double amputee. He painted his version of the masterpiece, Les Menottes de cuivre (1931), in flesh tones and colorful drapery but splashed blood-red pigment on her famous arm-stumps, giving the impression of a recent and painful amputation (Fig. 2).

Venus de Milo, circa 100 B

Fig. 1Venus de Milo, circa 100 B.C.E. The Louvre, Paris. (C) RMNj/© Hervé Lewandowski.

René Magritte, Les Menottes de cuivre 1931, © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of…

Fig. 2. René Magritte, Les Menottes de cuivre 1931, © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. (C) 2008 C. Herscovici, London/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A transitional figure in the conception of the Venus as a disabled woman is Aristide Maillol, the celebrated French sculptor. He did not name his versions of the Venus as disabled, but a number of his works are strongly suggestive of the conflict between disabled and non-disabled bodies in conceptions of female beauty. Most obvious is the sculpture, Harmonie(1940), but more significant may be an earlier and little discussed painting. Les Deux Baigneuses ou Dina de dos et profil (1938) shows Maillol trying to import into painting the concern with volume indicative of a sculptor. He paints two versions of Dina Vierny, seen from behind and in profile and facing each other, in order to gesture toward the image of a three-dimensional sculpture (Fig. 3). But the confrontation between the two figures produces as well a face-off between a disabled and non-disabled woman. The non-disabled woman, lying in the grass next to the pool, exists in the here and now. She is certainly beautiful. But the armless and legless woman floating on the surface of the pool, whether the reflection of the non-disabled woman or her twin rendered limbless by immersion in water, arises as the undeniable apparition of beauty. She is the dream of woman, whether haunting her non-disabled twin or Maillol himself. It is the armless and legless woman, then, whom Maillol appoints as the summit of aesthetic perfection, mimicking the captivating vision of female magnificence given to him by the Venus de Milo.

Aristide Maillol, Les deux baigneuses ou Dina de dos et profil 1938

Fig. 3. Aristide Maillol, Les deux baigneuses ou Dina de dos et profil 1938. Musée Maillol, Paris © 2008 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

It takes disabled artists to bring the evolution of disability aesthetics to a next stage in which disability is deliberately and explicitly represented as disability, not in the name of surrealism but in the name of a different aesthetic value–disability itself. Mary Duffy, the Irish performance artist, begins in the 1990’s to impersonate the Venus de Milo. Born without arms, Duffy presents herself to the audience fully nude or draped, while reciting statements challenging the vision of her as defective and claiming her place alongside the Venus as a disabled beauty (Fig. 4). She repeats the questions routinely posed to her by those unable to grasp her disability: “Were you born like that or did your mother take those dreadful tablets? Did you have an accident?” She also throws back into their face the speech of doctors: “You have words to describe me, congenital malformation.” But she disputes the power of medical vocabulary, claiming a body image whose aesthetic beauty has been celebrated for almost 200 years and that feels right to her: “I felt my body was right for me … Whole, complete, functional” (Mitchell and Snyder). Mary Duffy emerges as a modern day Venus not by shunning disability but by incarnating it.

Mary Duffy, video-still taken from Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, Vital…

Fig. 4. Mary Duffy, video-still taken from Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back 1995.

Whether Marc Quinn discovered the inspiration for his signally important and beautiful series of sculptures, The Complete Marbles, in his vision of sculptural fragments at the British Museum or took it from the work of one of his subjects, Alison Lapper, is not clear and may not be significant. The combination of their vision catapulted Quinn and Lapper into controversy, celebrity, and another vision of beauty when Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnantwas placed on the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2005. Lapper, born without arms and with foreshortened legs, had already begun to represent herself as the next incarnation of the Venus de Milo before she met Quinn. In Untitled (2000), she photographed herself in series against a black backdrop, mimicking the standard photographs of the Venus de Milo in art history textbooks (Fig. 5). The year before, she had photographed herself in wings, representing herself in Angel (1999), as the Nike of Samothrace (see Millett). Like Duffy, Lapper engages in a deliberate recuperation of her own image as belonging among the most celebrated and valued representations of female beauty in the history of art.

Alison Lapper, Untitled 2000

Fig. 5. Alison Lapper, Untitled 2000.

These artworks produce a baffling but crucial bending of time in the historical interpretation of aesthetic beauty. The images that Duffy and Lapper make of themselves are seen as beautiful because they recall so powerfully the vision of beauty affirmed in the history of art by the Venus de Milo. But these images also change retroactively the perception of the Venus, for her beauty now incorporates necessarily the presence of disability. We cannot see Duffy and Lapper without seeing the Venus, and we cannot see the Venus without seeing Duffy and Lapper.

Marc Quinn’s Complete Marbles probes to the heart of this historical puzzle. The series, of which Alison Lapper Pregnant is a part (Fig. 6), devotes itself to the representation of disabled people born without arms or legs or who have lost them in accidents. The subjects are cast in beautiful, snow-white Carrara marble, and upon first glance, they appear to be updates of classical fragmentary statuary. Only a second glance reveals that Quinn is not mimicking breakage as did his forebears, Michelangelo, Rodin or Maillol, but representing disabled people. Consider a few examples of the subjects and their reactions to Quinn’s project. The subject of Catherine Long was born having no left arm. “People like myself–disabled people,” Long understands, “have felt that people relate to a broken statue differently to the way they might to a person with a disability” (Quinn 26). Tom Yendelldepicts a subject who was born without both arms. “Sculpting an unfinished human form as a finished form,” Yendell thinks, “is absolutely brilliant” (Quinn 43). The idea for the sculptures came to Quinn when visiting the British Museum and observing the reactions of people to the artworks “in a condition of mutilation.” He began to think that “if someone from real life came in who had a similar form, the reaction would be completely the opposite. In this instance, avoidance would replace aesthetic scrutiny” (Quinn 4). The thought experiment eventually brings Quinn to the conclusion that I have been tracing here, one synonymous with the emergence of disability as a modern aesthetic value of increasing interest: “if the Venus de Milo had arms it would most probably be a very boring statue” (Quinn 4). This conclusion compels Quinn to create a series of sculptures of people missing body parts. These sculptures are not boring but exhilarating precisely because they depict disabled people. They are beautiful for the same reason.

Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005

Fig. 6. Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005. Trafalgar Square. Photographed by Steven Mullaney.

Fig 6a  Tom Yendell Marc Quinnb 200 Complete Marbles

4 T

Figure 6a  Tom Yendell

Figure 6b Katherine Long

Katherine Long Marc Quinn

These last images by Duffy, Lapper, and Quinn are not images of disability at the periphery, such as the dwarfs in Vélasquez’s Las Meninas,





but images of disability that demand to stand at center stage. For this reason, it is only right and just that Alison Lapper Pregnantfound an honored place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

My point is not that all the artworks discussed here represent disability intentionally but that intentions are rendered obsolete by the force of a retroactive reading of disability that recoups any semblances of disability in past works and demands that they be viewed anew as avatars of disabled people. Disability presents increasingly as the key figure in the production and appreciation of art, one that becomes synonymous with aesthetic value itself (Siebers, 2009). Not only is this evolution crucial because it embeds the perception of disability in some of the most creative and valued practices in human history but because it throws open the door to the work of disabled artists, whose images of themselves and other disabled people must now take their place alongside other treasured visions of beauty.

How far the evolution of disability aesthetics will advance is difficult to predict. We are a long way from picking out disabled people in the street as the pinnacle of human beauty. Unfortunately, they are almost everywhere stigmatized and disdained as inferior and ugly. But in the world of art, things are changing. In this one corner of the human universe, the one with the greatest claim to create and recognize beauty, people with disabilities are radiant.


Barkan, 1999
Leonard BarkanUnearthing the past: Archaeology and aesthetics in the making of Renaissance culture
Yale University Press, New Haven (1999)
Mitchell and Snyder, 2000
Mitchell, David, and Sharon Snyder, directors, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back, Chicago, Brace Yourselves Productions, 1996, 2000.
Quinn, 2004
Marc QuinnThe complete marbles
Mary Boone Gallery, New York (2004)
Millett, 2008
Millett, Ann, “Sculpting body ideals: Alison Lapper Pregnant and the public display of disability,” Disability Studies Quarterly 28,3 (2008): http://www.dsq-sds.org (accessed October 17, 2008).
Siebers, 2007
Siebers, Tobin, “Disability aesthetics,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 7,2 (2007): http://www.dsq-sds.org/2007_winter_toc.html (accessed October 17, 2008).
Siebers, 2008
Tobin SiebersZerbrochene Schönheit: Essays über Kunst, Ästhetik und Behinderung
Transcript Verlag. (Forthcoming), Bielefeld (2009)
Stiker, 2006
Stiker, Henri-Jacques. (2006). Les fables peintes du corps abîmé. Les images de l’infirmité du xvieau xxe siècle, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf.
Stiker, 2007
Stiker, Henri-Jacques. (2007). Approche anthropologique des images du handicap. Le schème du retournement ; Alter, European Journal of Disability Research, Revue européenne de recherche sur le handicap, vol.1-no  1.
Winckelmann, 2005
Johann Joachim WinckelmannHistoire de l’art dans l’antiquité
Librairie Générale Française, Paris (2005)

Tanya Raabe-Webber

September 10, 2017 by richard


Tanya Raabe other wise known as Tanya Raabe-Webber was Born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, has been a practising Visual Artist, devising artworks exploring and challenging identity, a disabled self and the nude in contemporary Art since 1987. She gained a BA(HONS) in Graphic Design at Leeds Polytechnic an MA in Communication Design at Manchester Metropolitan University and a PGCE in Higher Education fron Huddersfield University.

Tanya has exhibited as a solo artist and in group shows nationally including screening Who’s Who at National Portrait Gallery, Exhibitions at Holton Lee, Dorset, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, The Bluecoat, The A Foundation, Liverpool, Oriel Wrexham, Laing Gallery Newcastle since 1990.

Tanya Raabe-Webber is an acclaimed disabled artist challenging the notion of identity within contemporary portraiture, often creating portraits of high profile disabled people during live sittings in public art galleries and venues.

The winner of Ability Media International Award, Visual Arts in 2010 and DaDa International Festival, Visual Arts Award 2008, Tanya has also appeared on the BBC programme The Culture Show, undertaking a live televised portrait of the actor, musician and performance artist Mat Fraser and was recently shortlisted for The National Diversity Awards Lifetime Achievement.

Her recent collection Revealing Culture : HeadOn – Portraits of the Untold was delivered through a partnership between Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Wolverhampton Art Gallery, where live portrait sittings took place during a series of residencies in these venues, sitters including Tom Shakespeare Sociologist – Bioethicist, Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton, D.B.E, Active Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords and Sir Bert Massie CBE Former Chair of the Disability Rights Commission.

She has worked on many commissions including Architects Inside Out: Tate Modern and Art Matters: Tate Britain and most recently co-presented her collaborative research with Project Ability at the Contemporary Outsider Art: the global context conference in Melbourne Australia.

Sandy Nairne Director of National Portrait Gallery opens Whos Who at Shape, Tanya and Tony Heaton R:Evolve an instalation from the Revealing Culture collection, Bluecoat, Liverpool

Photo on the left: Sandy Nairne Director of NPG, Artist Tanya Raabe-Webber Tony Heaton, CEO Shape opening of Portraits by Tanya Raabe-Webber

Commissions include:

International Film Festival Canada – Picture This is sceening short Film ‘Portrait of Deborah Williams’ Feb 2012 – Calgary, Alberta. Canada


JGarry-RobsontomshakespeareRobert Softley and Nathan Gale

Portraits Dame Jane Campbell, Debs Williams Actor /Producer, Nabil Shaban Actor, Gary Robson DA Da Fest, Prof Tom Shakespeare, Robert Softley and Nathan Gal

Awards recieved:

  • Winner of Ability Media International Award, Visual Arts 2010, http://amiawards.org/2010-visual-arts
  • DaDa International Festival 2008 Visual Arts.
  • Arts Council England Grants for the Arts awards include Who’s Who 2008, Revealing Culture:HeadOn 2009-11.

Some of her other work includes Advisor on Cultural Olympiad commission ‘Artists Taking the Lead’, http://www.artiststakingthelead.org.uk/west-midlands/info and participatory work in Galleries, Schools, colleges and theatres nationally. Her work has been Published internationally in Representation of Sex, by H. Hagiwara, Osaka Women’s University, Japan.

Tanya is presently working on series of portraits commissioned by Meadow Arts and she is an associate Director of Fittings MultiMedia Arts http://www.fittings.org.uk/ . Tanya also recently created live portraits of high profile cultural figures who have helped to define a thriving Disability cultural identity with in a contemporary society. These portraits were created during a series of portrait sittings open to the public in Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Portraits of the Untold A collaboration with Tate Gallery http://www.tanyaraabe.co.uk/TR%20RC_HO%20cat2011.pdf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/disability-36904309/painting-a-picture-of-diversity  Film of Portrait of Evelyn Glennie Deaf Musician

Tanya Raabe-Webber is an acclaimed disabled artist challenging the notion of identity within contemporary portraiture, often creating portraits of high profile disabled people during live sittings in high profile public art galleries and venues.

She has been a professional artist since 1987. Tanya’s extensive collection of contemporary portraits and images of a disabling world often make use of a variety of mediums including mixed media collage, digital media, and traditional paint which she blends seamlessly to create her images.

There are significant aesthetic differences between Raabe-Webber’s earlier pieces and her current style of portraiture.

Quotes from Tanya

‘My work is driven by the portrayal of the diversity of humanity’

Tanya Raabe

‘I am a visual, issue-based artist/illustrator practising in the art of mixed-media painting and drawing. My artwork focuses on issues that are born out of my life experiences as a woman and a disabled person. I am an artist and a disabled artist creating images of myself in my environment that’s dominated by a society obsessed with physical beauty and perfection. I analyse and challenge some of the stereotypes and myths surrounding disabilities developed through years of misrepresentation concerning the body beautiful. Oppression and marginalisation has fuelled my drive to succeed as an artist and as a disability arts practitioner. My pictures are abstract/figurative, visually stimulating and emotionally challenging. Because I have a unique insight into disabled peoples’ lives and a high standard of professional art skills, I have combined this knowledge to develop and coordinate professional disability arts projects, residencies and workshops in art galleries, resource centres and arts centres around the country. Disability art is part of my history and I am part of its history. This is an art movement that has not been recognised by art historians. Disabled artists have yet to be valued and recognised as professional and take their place in art history. But I continue to develop new artwork and contribute to the disability arts movement and I am successful in my field. My work has been published and exhibited nationally and internationally.’

Tanya Raabe 2011 Sophie Morgan Portrait

Disability Arts Movement highlights

Her popular ‘Who’s Who’ and ‘Revealing Culture: Head On’ series’ challenge the notion of portraiture using disability aesthetics and visual language.

These painted portraits depict disabled artists and pioneers of the Disability Arts and Cultural sector and were exhibited nationally, including an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009: www.tanyaraabe.co.uk/whoswho.html.

Further Reading

Her most recent project is ‘Portraits Untold’, is an ambitious live portrait project exploring and celebrating our common humanity; involving a series of live streamed portrait events in high profile venues including the National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust: www.portraitsuntold.co.uk

Who’S WhO – Defining Faces of an Arts Movement

Who’S WhO is a collection of portraits created by Tanya Raabe-webber Visual Artist. The portraits challenge the notion of portraiture using disability aesthetics and visual language. The portraits are of established and new emerging disabled artists who have and continue to pioneer disability arts and culture in a society that uses perfection, beauty, and normality as a ‘must have’.

Each artist has been chosen because of their influence in shaping disability art as an arts movement in its own right and have in some way shaped the art work of leading disabled artist Tanya Raabe-Webber. Another aspect of the project was Multimedia Portraits which combines the production and working processes of the paintings and drawings in transition with sound, vision and text, hearing each artist talking about their history of art and their working processes. Studio Talks contextualises the subjects juxtaposing their position in a challenging society exploring disability art and culture.

Dr Paul Darke

Artist/Writer/Cultural Critic. Paul is recognised for his frankness about the state of disability arts and for his historical exploration of disability representation in film. Paul has been developing his own artwork using the internet since 2000. www.outside-centre.com “Its guerrilla art from a disability art perspective.”

Portrait of Paul Darke by Tanya Raabe

Mat Fraser

Actor/Performance Artist/Singer/Songwriter/Playwright. Mat is recognised as an actor in the mainstream and for being an ambassador of the representation of disabled people in the media while causing controversial disability arts debate within disability culture, and for being born disabled but not ‘coming out’ as a disabled person until he was in his 30’s. www.matfraser.co.uk

Portrait of Mat Fraser by Tanya Raabe

Colin Hambrook

Painter/Disability Arts Writer . Colin is recognised for his paintings about his experience as a disabled man and mental health system survivor. His paintings are part of the NDACA National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, at Holton Lee. Colin is presently the artistic director of www.disabilityarts.org a contemporary cyber space keeping alive and developing disability arts into the 21st century.

Portrait of Colin Hambrook by Tanya Raabe

Tony Heaton

Sculptor/pioneer of NDACA, National Disability Arts Collection and Archive at Holton Lee.Tony is recognised for being a Sculptor in his own right and for his work at Holton Lee, setting up Faith House art gallery, accessible studio spaces, NDACA and campaigning for disability art to be recognized as an arts movement in its own right.

Portrait of Tony Heaton by Tanya Raabe

Nikki Hewish

Deaf Artist – Installation Artist. Nikki is an emerging deaf artist in the early stages of her career exploring her ideas about the world around her using sculptural material to create installations.

Portrait of Nikki Hewish by Tanya Raabe

Dave King

3D Fantasy Digital Artist. David has a background in science and delves into the realm of 3D computer graphics utilizing the useful metamorphosis of mathematics to produce imagery. “My work intends to deliver the potency of using digital techniques to produce art by using structure and shape to employ techniques of object and anatomical construction”

Portrait of Dave King by Tanya Raabe

Julie McNamara

Singer/Songwriter/Playwright/Raconteur/Activist. Julie is recognized for her amazing stories about her experiences as a disabled woman/mental health system survivor that she has interpreted into performance/plays/songs that have given others the will to live, and for being ‘cured’ of her disabilities by the ‘medical profession’. www.juliemc.com

Portrait of Julie McNamara by Tanya Raabe

Zoe Partington – Sollinger

Installation Artist/Disability Arts Consultant Zoe is recognized for her work in equality training and is emerging as a disabled artist in her own right creating conceptual installations based on her experiences as a disabled woman in a disabling world.

Portrait of Zoe Partington – Sollinger by Tanya Raabe

Allan Sutherland

Writer/Playwright/Performance poet. Allan is recognized for his “love of words”, his radio play ‘Inmates’, and as the author of ‘Disabled We Stand’ a book exploring disability culture and identity that has been a ‘light bulb’ for people to identify them selves as disabled people and for The Edward Lear Foundation an established Disability Arts think-tank on the internet. www.learfoundation.org.uk

Portrait of Allan Sutherland by Tanya Raabe

Who’S WhO exhibition history & portraits

Who’S WhO Exhibition Launch 15th March 2008 – 19th May 2008

Who’S WhO was funded by Arts Council England

Arts Council England logo

Shape London : 12th November 09 – January 31st 2010.

27a Access Artspace: 20th July – 10th September 2009.

Solihull Arts Complex: 25th May – 5th July 2009.

Oriel Wrecsam / Wrexham Arts Centre: 7th March -18th April 2009.

National Portrait Gallery; Meet The Artists: 23rd March 2009.

Qube Gallery Oswestry: 2nd February – 28th February 2009.

The Place Theatre Telford: 18th October – 20th November 2008.

DaDaFest International 08 at the A Foundation Liverpool: 18th August – 7th September 2008.

Beaumont College Arts Festival: 7th – 11th July 2008


All artworks are © Tanya Raabe 2011. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Vincent Van Gogh, 1853–1890

by richard

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”

Around the time that Tolstoy was tussling with depression and his spiritual crisis, on the other side of Europe another creative icon was struggling with the darkness of his own psychoemotional landscape. As he was painting some of the most celebrated and influential art of all time, Vincent Van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) was combating his anguishing mental illness — frequent episodes of depression, paralyzing anxiety and, according to some accounts, the symptoms of bipolar disorder — which would eventually claim his life in 1890, shortly after his 37th birthday.

Van Gogh’s most direct and honest account of his psychoemotional turmoil comes from the letters to his brother Theo, originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and later excerpted in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — the same wonderful 1976 gem that gave us his thoughts on love, tracing “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh.” The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

Dutch newspaper report from December 30, 1888: ‘Last Sunday night at half past eleven a painter named Vincent Van Gogh, appeared at the maison de tolérance No 1, asked for a girl called Rachel, and handed her … his ear with these words: ‘Keep this object like a treasure.’ Then he disappeared. The police, informed of these events, which could only be the work of an unfortunate madman, looked the next morning for this individual, whom they found in bed with scarcely a sign of life. The poor man was taken to hospital without delay.’

In one of the early letters, Van Gogh expressed an aspiration that remained significant for him throughout his life:

Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.

It’s also a thought bittersweet in hindsight, given the self-compassion it implies for being eccentric. Years later, that very eccentricity would be interpreted as madness by his neighbors, who would evict him from his house and lead to his checking into an insane asylum.

Meanwhile, his bouts of depression, when they descended upon him, were unforgiving. In another letter to Theo, he writes:

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

But underlying his deep despair is a subtle sense of optimism that carries him and enables him to continue painting despite the mental anguish:

This is my ambition, which is founded less on anger than on love, founded more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.

Like artist Maira Kalman, who asserted nearly a century and a half later that work and love are the two keys to a full life, Van Gogh begins to see his work as his unflinching sense of purpose, his salvation:

How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.

Having at one point subsisted primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe, he embraces work as life’s highest reward, worth any sacrifice:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,’ 1889, painted shortly after he sliced off his own ear

But in reflecting — as Kurt Vonnegut memorably did — on what makes life fulfilling, it seems that rather than conveying a conviction to his brother, Van Gogh is trying to convince himself:

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

And yet, Van Gogh ultimately sees his psychological struggles not as something to negate but as his artistic truth, as a vital part of his honest experience, which is the necessary foundation of great art:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment


During his time in Auvers in the South of France from mid May to his death by suicide on July 29th Vincent produced many oil paintings over 77 that are recorded. This prodigious output has been linked to the manic stage of his Bi-Polar . Here are some of them.

Sheaves of Wheat July1890Thatched Cottage in JorgusJune 1890Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky July 1890Young Girl Standing Against a Background of Wheat June 1890Wheat fields with Crows July 1890Young Man with Cornflower June1890Portrait of Adeline Ravoux 1 June 1890Fields with Wheat Stacks July 1890

Van Gogh’s Mental and Physical Health

Hundreds of physicians and psychiatrists have tried to define Van Gogh’s medical conditions over the years. The following are some of the more probable mental and physical diagnoses.

Van Gogh suffered from seizures which doctors, including Dr. Felix Rey and Dr. Peyron, believed to be caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. Van Gogh was born with a brain lesion that many doctors believe was aggravated by his prolonged use of absinthe causing his epileptic condition. Dr. Gachet, another of Van Gogh’s physicians, was thought to have treated his epilepsy with digitalis. This prescription drug can cause one to see in yellow or see yellow spots. This may have been one of the reasons why Van Gogh loved this color.Temporal Lobe Epilepsy


Bipolar disorder

Due to Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art coupled with the feverish pace of his art production many believe that mania was a prominent condition in Van Gogh’s life. However, these episodes were always followed by exhaustion and depression and ultimately suicide. Therefore, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or manic depression makes sense with the accounts of these episodes in Van Gogh’s life.


Thujone poisoning

In order to counter act his attacks of epilepsy, anxiety, and depression, Van Gogh drank absinthe, a toxic alcoholic drink popular with many artists at the time. Thujone is the toxin in absinthe. Unfortunately, the Thujone worked against Van Gogh aggravating his epilepsy and manic depression. High doses of thujone can also cause one to see objects in yellow. Various physicians have differing opinions on whether or not this is what caused Van Gogh’s affinity with yellow.


Lead poisoning

Because Van Gogh used lead based paints there are some who believe he suffered from lead poisoning from nibbling at paint chips. It was also noted by Dr. Peyron that during his attacks Van Gogh tried to poison himself by swallowing paint or drinking kerosene. One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is swelling of the retinas which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects. This can be seen in paintings like The Starry Night.



Hypergraphia is a condition causing one to need to write continuously; this disorder is commonly linked to mania and epilepsy. Some believe that the massive collection of over 800 letters Van Gogh wrote during his lifetime could be attributed to this condition.



Because Van Gogh strived for realism in his paintings he was often painting outdoors especially during his times in the South of France. Some of his episodes of hostility and the nausea and “bad stomach” he refers to in his letters may have been the effects of sunstroke.



A new exhibition explores the Dutch master’s psychological torment. 26 AUGUST 2016

Until now, the way of testing whether or not someone had good biographical knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was to ask them about the famous ear-cutting incident. The answer ‘he cut off his ear’ informed you the speaker had only a hazy comprehension, whereas the knowledgeable person replied ‘in actuality, Van Gogh cut off only part of his ear’. Now new information suggests that Van Gogh did indeed cut off his whole left ear. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (closes 25 September), accompanied by an excellent catalogue, attempts to get as close as possible to the truth about Van Gogh’s physical and mental illnesses.

The confusion about the ear incident sprang up during Van Gogh’s lifetime. On the 23 December 1888, Van Gogh was living with Paul Gauguin at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin announced his intention to leave Arles after persistent rows with Van Gogh. Deeply anxious and depressed, Van Gogh slashed his ear with a razor. He presented the ear wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute at a local brothel. The next day police discovered Van Gogh unconscious in his house surrounded by blood. Vincent’s brother Theo (who supported him morally and financially) raced from Paris on Christmas Day to comfort Van Gogh in Arles hospital.

Jo Van Gogh-Bonger (Van Gogh’s sister-in-law and someone who met him several times after the incident) claimed it was part of the ear, whereas doctors, policemen and reporters in Arles claimed it was the entire ear. Van Gogh became ashamed of his mutilation and attempted to conceal it, leading to the contradictory statements of associates. Some witnesses may not have seen the injury clearly and others repeated what they had been told. What seems to be the clinching proof that he did cut off almost his whole ear (except a stump of the lobe) is a diagram made by Dr Felix Rey, the attending physician in Arles.

While biographically interesting, the ear incident in no way helps us understand Van Gogh’s art. What does have more bearing on his artistic production and life is the multiple illnesses he suffered from. Irritable and melancholy by nature and prone to fixations on individuals and ideas, Van Gogh’s devotion to work led him to neglect his health. Though he spent on art materials, he ate poorly. The loss of most of his teeth in his early thirties led to gastric trouble. He suffered from insomnia. And he contracted gonorrhoea, and possibly syphilis.

Van Gogh’s poor diet, tiredness and overconsumption of alcohol and caffeine – plus his tendency to overwork – contributed to attacks of mania, which physicians at the time diagnosed as epileptic fugues. In these states, Van Gogh ate paint and attempted to drink turpentine and paraffin. He had seemingly no control over his actions and experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. After these attacks he would be overcome by lassitude, depression, his speech would be jumbled and he would fail to recognise familiar people. Even when not in these post-manic phases, he suffered from extreme nervous tension and paranoia.

There have been numerous suggested diagnoses of Van Gogh’s mental illness, but none is without flaw. Psychosis, bi-polar disorder, borderline-personality disorder, neurosyphilis, Meniere’s disease, poisoning and other suggestions have been put forward. Van Gogh never painted during his nervous attacks, but his illness and his (voluntary) confinement did influence his choice of artistic subjects and even his materials. During phases when he was considered at risk of relapse, he had no access to oil paint and was only allowed ink and watercolour. His attachment to religious subjects and the themes of family life and the life of prisoners were direct comments on his situation.

In Arles hospital, Van Gogh was treated for his wound, but it was clear he was mentally ill. The local postman, a Protestant pastor and a cleaning lady all made strenuous efforts to support Van Gogh, regularly sending Theo updates after he returned to Paris, leaving his brother in Arles. Van Gogh’s condition fluctuated. Local residents in Arles started a petition and gave a verbal deposition to the effect that Van Gogh’s lewd and unpredictable behaviour frightened people, that he had inappropriately touched women and followed them into their residences. A document was drafted which would have committed him to an asylum. Van Gogh – fully aware that he was ill and a danger to himself – voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in nearby St Remy.

In May 1889, Van Gogh moved from St Remy to Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village near Paris, where he could be close to Theo, Theo’s wife Jo and their baby. Dr Gachet, a friend of painters, would take care of Van Gogh. Though isolated and nervous, he was productive over the summer and seemed to have achieved equilibrium. On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh apparently shot himself while out painting in a field. He staggered back to his boarding house. Doctors determined that the bullet wound to the abdomen was fatal and inoperable. He died in his brother’s arms on 29 July.

Included in the catalogue is a photograph of a pistol recovered in 1960 from a field near the site of Van Gogh’s shooting. It is a reasonable assumption this artefact is the fatal weapon. The catalogue’s authors do not discuss the idea put forward by biographers Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh that Van Gogh was shot by local teenage boy Rene Secretan, a theory that prominent Van Gogh experts consider improbable.

The curators and writers have commendably resisted translating Van Gogh’s illness into explanations for his art, but they do show how his conditions influenced his life and outlook. It is unlikely that new material will come to light that will permit clear diagnosis of his mental condition, but this exhibition and catalogue do bring us closer to understanding the distress of one of art’s greatest geniuses.

Alexander Adams is a writer and art critic. He writes for Apollo, the Art Newspaperand the Jackdaw. His book On Dead Mountain is published by Golconda Fine Art Books. (Order this book from the Pig Ear Press bookshop.)http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-madness-of-vincent-van-gogh/18680#.WbUlwrKGOUk

On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness is at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until 25 September. The exhibition catalogue, published by Mercatorfonds, is available to buy here.

Paula Rego, 1935–

by richard

Paula Rego and her son discuss unravelling the artist’s tortured life on film


Paula Rego and the flying mermaids in her north London studio CREDIT: ©NICK WILLING/©NICK WILLING 

Awoman, in a black dress with bare feet, presses herself into a sofa. Her posture is cowered, and her arms are crossed across her chest protectively. One leg is drawn up against her body, as if in pain, and there’s a deep frown line down the centre of her forehead. In her hands, she clutches a brown piece of rubber that loops between her legs. Her face is blank, and she hugs the rubber tightly, as if trying to wrap herself in it. This picture is from artist Dame Paula Rego’s Depression Series of works on paper, which is on show for the first time at London’s Marlborough Fine Art gallery to coincide with the screening of a BBC documentary made by her son Nick Willing about her life.

images (4)

Rego was born in 1935 in Portugal, and has through her life switched  between there and London, where she studied at The Slade School of Fine Art and currently resides. She ostensibly works in paint and pastel, and often draws on folk-themes from her native country, and reflects on feminism. A remarkable talent, now 82 years old, she is considered to rank among the 20th century’s best painters. She has also ploughed a furrow for female artists, talking passionately about feminist issues such as abortion, and paving the way them to be taken seriously. Whilst at The Slade, Rego met artist Victor Willing, who she later married, and with whom she had three children – Nick, Cassie and Victoria.



The film Nick Willing made about his mother’s life, Secrets and Stories, will be shown on BBC Two this weekend. “There are two reasons that my mother agreed to let me make the film now,” he explains. When Portugal cut its arts funding during the recent global recession, one of Rego’s museums was affected by the cuts and Nick hired a lawyer to try to coordinate deals and contracts; the work brought the mother and son closer together. “Our relationship evolved, and she started telling me these stories that I’d never heard before,” says Nick. “The stories just cropped up in coversation. So I said: why don’t you make a film and you can tell everybody about your life?” She agreed, and Secrets and Stories was born. The archive of footage he draws upon, and splices together is varied, fascinating and detailed as he has been filming his mother ever since 1975, when, aged 13, his grandfather gave him a video camera.

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Paula Rego and her husband Victor Willing at their house in Ericeria, Portugal CREDIT: CREDIT: MANUELA MORAIS/CREDIT: MANUELA MORAIS

Making the film was also a cathartic exercise for Willing. When he was a child, him and his siblings Cassie and Victoria were locked out of his parents’ studio in the grounds of their house in Ericeria, a small, traditional port town in Portugal. He recalls how the only way he was able to spend time with his mother was when they’d draw together, and the only time she opened the studio door to him was when he poked a drawing underneath. When she saw it, she allowed him in, and asked him to explain the drawing. “The film was cathartic on all sorts of levels. I got to know my mum not only through her work, but also through my work. That’s how we’d always connected, through the work, drawing and so on. Now I was using my work – I’d been a filmmaker all my life. So I was in a way doing what she’s always done, which was use work to unravel something that I don’t fully understand about myself and about my family.”


In the film, this unraveling involves some piercingly honest anecdotes from mother to son. For example, she describes how she lost her virginity to artist Willing’s father at a party when she was a student at The Slade. “He told me to come into a room and take down my knickers, and I just did it. I was a virgin, so you can imagine the mess that caused. He could have at least hailed me a taxi, not at all. He stayed in there tidying up.” As Willing explains it, was closer to a rape than a romantic moment. “That was the first time she’d told it like that,” he says. “And it really wasn’t pleasant at all. She ended up falling completely head-over-heels for my father; she had very, very, strong feelings for him. And it’s the feelings that have to be corralled and come to terms with in the pictures – that’s what the pictures are for – they’re for somehow trying to come to terms with those difficult feelings.”

The same is true of the Depression Series, which features twelve pastels in muted black, ochre and mustard yellow that Paula Rego made in 2007 when in the depths of a  depression that nearly killed her. At the time, she locked them in a drawer, partly because she was ashamed of being so depressed, and partly because she was afraid that if she opened the drawer, she might become depressed again. “The pictures show the way I felt,” says Rego about the series. “Stuck, as if tied up, unable to move. Sometimes I hold onto the wrong thing – like that big rubber thing in the picture – thinking that it might help, but on the contrary, it doesn’t help at all. You don’t know good from bad.”

Paula-Rego-Depression-Series images (2)

Another revealing moment in the film is when Nick asks his mother to tell him about the thing in her life that she’s most proud of. She answers that it was winning the first prize in a painting competition at The Slade while a student there. “I was taken seriously for the first time. Even though I was a foreigner and a woman, they thought my picture was the best.” This was a revelation for Paula, who, for the first time, understood the true power of art. Winning the prize gave her the strength and confidence to go ahead and do it,  to do the things she’d always wanted to do.

images (6)

Paula and Nick 
Paula Rego and her son Nick Willing in the artist’s north London studio CREDIT: CREDIT: NICK WILLING /CREDIT: NICK WILLING

Throughout her life art has been her weapon, her strength and her voice, her power. She has used drawing as a way of expressing the truth about a situation, her real thoughts and feelings, whereas in real life she has capitulated and avoided conflict, she says. When fighting to overturn laws banning abortion in Portugal in the late Nineties, she made a series of etchings, drawings and paintings showing the reality of the suffering women experience when having them illegally.  For Paula, her work and her life are contingent – one cannot exist without the other. “If I think I’ve done something good I feel better,” explains Paula about her work in relation to depression. “By moving, doing something, keeping going helps. It’s essential to life.”

Paula Rego: Depression Series, Marlborough Fine Art, 14 March – 1 April 2017, marlboroughlondon.com

Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories, directed by Nick Willing, airs on BBC Two on the 25th March at 9pm, bbc.co.uk/bbctwo http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04x5yjf

Interview 2009 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/6469383/Paula-Rego-interview.html

Interview in the Guardian 2009  ‘You punish with Drawing’ https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/aug/22/paula-rego-art-interview

Pablo Picasso, Blue Period Art and Depression

by richard

Pablo Picasso 1901-1904 Blue Period Art and Depression

Self Portrait Blue Period Self -Portrait

The Blue Period (SpanishPeríodo Azul) is a term used to define the works produced by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso between 1901 and 1904 when he painted essentially monochromatic paintings in shades of blue and blue-green, only occasionally warmed by other colors. These somber works, inspired by Spain and painted in Barcelona and Paris, are now some of his most popular works, although he had difficulty selling them at the time.

This period’s starting point is uncertain; it may have begun in Spain in the spring of 1901 or in Paris in the second half of the year. In choosing austere color and sometimes doleful subject matter—prostitutesbeggars and drunks are frequent subjects—Picasso was influenced by a journey through Spain and by the suicide of his friend; Carlos Casagemas took his life at the L’Hippodrome Café in ParisFrance by shooting himself in the right temple on February 17, 1901. Although Picasso himself later recalled, “I started painting in blue when I learned of Casagemas’s death”, art historian Hélène Seckel has written: “While we might be right to retain this psychologizing justification, we ought not lose sight of the chronology of events: Picasso was not there when Casagemas committed suicide in Paris … When Picasso returned to Paris in May, he stayed in the studio of his departed friend, where he worked for several more weeks to prepare his exhibition for Vollard”. The works Picasso painted for his show at Ambroise Vollard‘s gallery that summer were generally characterized by a “dazzling palette and exuberant subject matter”.Picasso’s psychological state worsened as 1901 continued.

The death of casagemas Picasso 1901The death of casagemas Picasso 1900

In the latter part of 1901, Picasso sank into a severe depression and blue tones began to dominate his paintings. Picasso’s painting La mort de Casagemas, completed early in the year following his friend’s suicide, was done in hot, bright hues. The painting considered the first of his Blue Period, Casagemas in His Coffin, was completed later in 1901 when Picasso was sinking into a major depression. Picasso, normally an outgoing socializer, withdrew from his friends. Picasso’s bout of depression was to last several years. Picasso’s career had been promising before 1901 and early in that year he was making “a splash” in Paris. However, as he moved towards subject matter such as society’s poor and outcast, and accented this with a cool, anguished mood with blue hues, the critics and the public turned away from his works. Members of the public were uninterested in displaying the Blue Period works in their homes. Picasso continued his output, but his financial situation suffered:


His pictures, not merely melancholy but profoundly depressed and cheerless, inspired no affection in the public or in buyers. It was not poverty that led him to paint the impoverished outsiders of society, but rather the fact that he painted them that made him poor himself.

From 1901 to 1903, he painted several posthumous portraits of Casagemas, culminating in the gloomy allegorical painting La Vie, painted in 1903 and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Picasso_la_viepicasso (1)Portrait d'Angel Fernandez de Soto,The Frugal Repast Picasso 1904

The same mood pervades the well-known etching The Frugal Repast (1904) which depicts a blind man and a sighted woman, both emaciated, seated at a nearly bare table. Blindness is a recurrent theme in Picasso’s works of this period, also represented in The Blindman’s Meal (1903, the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and in the portrait of Celestina (1903).

_the_blind_mans_meal_1903celestina 1903 ( Blind)Old Beggar with Boy1

Infrared imagery of Picasso’s 1901 painting The Blue Room reveals another painting beneath the surface.[9]

Other frequent subjects include female nudes and mothers with children. Solitary figures dominate his Blue Period works. Themes of loneliness, poverty and despair pervade the works as well. Possibly his most well known work from this period is The Old Guitarist.

Old_guitarist_chicagopicasso_1902_las_dos_hermanasPortrait of Soler 1903

Other major works include Portrait of Soler (1903) and Las dos hermanas (1904).

Picasso’s Blue Period was followed by his Rose Period. Picasso’s bout with depression gradually ended, and as his psychological state improved, he moved towards more joyful, vibrant works, and emphasized the use of pinks (“rose” in French) and other warm hues to express the shift in mood and subject matter.Picasso’s depression didn’t end with the beginning of his rose period, which succeeded the blue period and in which the color pink dominates in many of his paintings. In fact, it lasted until the end of his cubist period (which followed the rose period) and only in the period thereafter, which was his neo-classicist period, did Picasso’s work begin the show the playfulness that would remain a prominent feature of his work for the rest of his life. Picasso’s contemporaries didn’t even distinguish between a blue and a rose period but regarded the two as one single period.

Acrobat and Young Harlequin, 1905 & Boy with Pipe 1905download

The painting Portrait of Suzanne Bloch (1904), one of the final works from this period, was stolen from the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) on December 20, 2007, but retrieved on January 8, 2008.








Paul Cézanne, 1839–1906

by richard

CÉZANNE, PAUL (1839-1906)

Who was Paul Cézanne?


Paul Cézanne was born on January 19, 1839, in Aix-en-Provence, France and died in his home in Aix at age 67 on October 23, 1906. Although born out of wedlock, Cézanne was acknowledged by his father, a hatter turned wealthy banker. Cézanne’s parents were married in Aix a few years after his birth.

In 1857, at the age of 18, Cézanne enrolled at the École Gratuite de Dessin (free drawing school) in Aix. At the encouragement of his father, Cézanne attended law school. He dropped out in 1861 to travel to Paris pursue his art. While in Paris he attended a private art school, the Académie Suisse (Claude Monet attended the same school). Despite the submission of a variety of his work, Cézanne’s paintings were never accepted by the traditional and prestigious French Salon.

Cézanne worked in Aix and Paris for many years. Cézanne refused to enlist in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and was considered a draft-dodger. He fathered a son born in 1872, with Hortense Fiquet, whom he married several years later.

1886-90 Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Gardanne oil on canvas 62.5 x 91 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.cezanne-1880

Cézanne’s work found favor with the Impressionists, and he displayed three paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Although generally a solitary man, Cézanne was close friends with some of the other Impressionists. Camille Pisarro was Cézanne’s most consistent supporter from 1861 onward; Cézanne was named one of the executors of Pissaro’s will. Cézanne and Claude Monet were also good friends, and greatly admired one another’s work. His fellow artists frequently commented on the clarity and elegance of his varied subjects. Cézanne had an uncanny ability to juxtapose various forms, colours, and textures into a unified composition. Monet, as well as Edgar Degas and Paul Gaugin all included Cézanne’s paintings in their collections.

los_jugadores_de_cartas 18901897

Despite his friendships, Cézanne was wary of the world and spent most of his life in relative isolation. He wrote, “I should remain alone, people’s cunning is such that I can’t get away from it, it’s theft, conceit, infatuation, rape, seizure of your production, and yet nature is very beautiful.” – from a letter to his son, also named Paul, September 28, 1906. His childhood friend, the famous French writer Emile Zola, with whom he carried on an active correspondence, was a significant influence in his life. Cézanne was characterized as private and frequently misunderstood. Painting was an obsession. Just before his death he complained to his son, “ I live a bit as if in a void. Painting is what matters most to me.” His last visit to Paris was in 1904 and he died two years later.

1976.68_retrato-campesino 1905legrandibagnanti,i,1906

Cézanne aimed to transform the Impressionist style of painting into something more concrete. He was an important bridge from the Impressionists to more modern forms of art. Like the other Impressionists, Cézanne believed it imperative not to copy an object, but to depict the sensations it created. He said, “to paint is to register these color sensations.” He painted an unusally wide variety of subject matter, from portraiture, to landscape, to still life. Cézanne’s style of painting was quite different from that of some of the other Impressionists such as Renoir and Monet and his brush strokes were more deliberate than those of many of his impressionist contemporaries.

Cézanne’s Myopia: A Shortcut to Abstraction?


Although perhaps only coincidence, a large number of the Impressionist painters were “nearsighted” (ie. myopes). For example, Cézanne, and Renoir both suffered from and appeared to exploit the blur induced by their myopia in their work. Renoir was known to step back from the canvas so that it was out of focus. Cézanne, when offered spectacles raged, “take away those vulgar things!” Arguably, the sharp focus produced by corrective lenses worked against the global abstract style that the Impressionists sought to achieve. In short, uncorrected myopia may have offered a “shortcut” to abstracting the general forms and colors of the scene being painted.

In 1890, at age 51, Cézanne was diagnosed with diabetes which is speculated may have induced some concurrent retinopathy. Later, as he entered his 60s, Cézanne began to complain of “cerebral disturbances” that prevented him from moving about freely. The extent and nature of these cerebral disturbances, however, is unclear.


Edgar Degas, 1834–1917

September 9, 2017 by richard

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)edgar-degas-9269770-1-402

Edgar Degas was a French painter, sculptor, and engraver. He is best known for his paintings of dancers, and he excelled in capturing their movement and artistry.

Edgar_Degas_-_Dance_Class edgar-degas-young-spartans-exercising

Degas’ vision problems began in 1870, at age 36, probably due to retinopathy, or problems with his retina. He found it difficult to tolerate bright light, especially sunlight, and preferred to work indoors in more light-controlled environments, such as the opera and ballet stages he depicted in many of his paintings.


In 1874, at age 40, Degas also developed a loss of central vision, possibly from macular degeneration. His vision continued to deteriorate and by 1891, at age 57, he could no longer read print. As his vision changed, however, Degas learned to adapt. He began working with pastels instead of oils (since pastels require less precision), and took up sculpture, printmaking, and photography.

To better understand how Degas’s vision changed, it’s helpful to compare his paintings.

Degas painted A Woman with Chrysanthemums, which contains much fine detail, in 1865, when he was 31:woman_with_chrysanthemums 1865

In contrast, Degas painted Two Dancers, which contains broad brush strokes and very little fine detail, in the period between 1890-1898, when his vision problems were well advanced:


Edgar Degas completed this pastel titled “Woman Combing Her Hair,” in 1886. During the mid-1880s, he first began to talk about his “infirmity of sight.

3-woman-combing-her-hair-edgar-degas 1886Edgar_Degas_-_Woman_at_Her_Toilettedegas Woman drying her hair 1905



By the time Degas completed his eyesight had dropped to somewhere between 20/200 and 20/400. Marmor notes that after 1900, there was virtually no detailing of faces or clothing in Degas’ artwork.