Hidden Figures: Disability in Art & Disabled Artists

Featured String: Disability in Art & Artists

Disability in artists is usually presented either as the whole of their identity, often erasing the quality of their art, or completely removed from their story, leaving only the art in its place. With this string I did my best to find artists in the collections whose biographies were reasonably well-known, and sort through them for those who had disabilities; there’s certainly more representation of disability in works of art, although a lot of that is from earlier time periods where we know nothing of the artists, and the work itself is often quite offensive.


Toulouse-Lautrec, whose portrait of his fellow-student Emile Bernard is not on display at the time of writing, may be familiar to a certain generation as a character in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge. Portrayed as hard-drinking (which he certainly was, and it eventually killed him), large-living, and unfortunately also by an actor of average height walking on his knees, Toulouse-Lautrec of the movie was a figure of fun.

In reality Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a prodigious and prolific artist, creating close to a thousand paintings and over five thousand drawings during the course of his life–and he died at 36.

Drawing inspiration from Japanese woodprints, Impressionists such as Degas, and the ferocious and often filthy nightlife of late 19th century Paris, the artist navigated a world of sex workers and performers and produced highly individualised crowd scenes and unglamorous portraits, alongside designing prints and posters for the music halls and palaces of entertainment he frequented.

Filling his mobility aid with alcohol and regularly visiting women his congenital disabilities gave him a sense of affinity with, Toulouse-Lautrec is for many the icon of fin de siecle Paris. His image as a louche and depraved man often skates over the reality of physical pain and the toll his alcoholism took on his body; it also ignores his commitment to the underdog, such as his vocal and devoted support for Oscar Wilde during his infamous sodomy trial.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born with an unknown condition that contributed to the failure of his body to heal from childhood bone breaks and resulted in his diminished stature at an early age; the next artist acquired his disability later in life.



The Forest at Fontainebleau, Henri Matisse (1909)

Another Henri, Matisse, had a career of almost forty years before being diagnosed with cancer. Complications during surgery resulted in his near-death in the middle of WW2, and he spent the remainder of his life using a wheelchair.

Matisse’s art had already progressed through several different art movements and sources of inspiration during the four decades of his working life prior to cancer; he drew inspiration from the Impressionists, then joined the Fauvists (“savages”; there is no way of describing the movement that doesn’t allude to highly colonialist concepts, embedded in its very name), during which the above painting was created.

Although he had dabbled in the medium before, it was not until his mobility was changed that Matisse moved away from the mediums of paint and three-dimensional sculptures to work with paper cut-outs, positioning brightly-coloured fragments to create works that were solely dependent on colour, rather than form, to produce their effect.

As the artist himself said, “An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of success…” — a mentality which he certainly followed.

One of the hallmarks of Matisse’s works which became ever-more evident later in his life and career was the use of vibrant, intense colours, to phenomenal effect. He was far from alone in this, and perhaps one of the most famous painters in the Western art world preceded him…

Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh (1888)

Van Gogh’s sunflowers may be the most readily recognised  image in European art, and not only because he made so many versions of the same subject. He’s rightfully credited with an enormous impact on modern art, and most people are aware that he received almost no success or recompense for his enormous body of work (some 2,100 paintings in one decade) during his life.

His mental ill-health is also well-known. Vincent committed suicide at 37, after years and years of periods of depression, psychosis, and delusion. One famous self-portrait depicts the aftermath of an act of brutal self-harm. Unfortunately as an exemplar of artistic accomplishment and a visibly mentally-ill man, Vincent’s life story has fed into a lot of damaging myths about mental illness and art, namely that medicating or treating suffering would somehow have removed his ability to create.

In fact, Vincent’s most prolific periods were during his times of treatment. He produced multiple portraits of his psychiatrists, and was often prevented from work by periods of illness, rather than driven to create because of them. We also have a clear window into much of Vincent’s thoughts and life thanks to his detailed and warm letters to his younger brother and biggest supporter, Theo.

The ideal of “treatment would have destroyed his ability to create” also glosses over the reality of his suicide at 37–Vincent would most likely have continued to create, to evolve, and to produce works of stunning beauty for many decades had he not been driven by his own suffering to seek escape.

Vincent’s beautiful, bright, lively works are often described as a contrast to the darkness his mind struggled with. The last artist in this section, on the other hand, seems to have reflected his increasing inner darkness…

Portrait of Francisco de Goya, Vicent López Portaña (1826)File:Vicente López Portaña - el pintor Francisco de Goya.jpg

Francisco de Goya, generally known now by the mononym Goya, straddled the divide between “Old Master” and “Modern painter”, and has been viewed as both. He became deaf after an illness, and as war and its associated horrors ravaged his homelands his works became bleaker and bleaker.

A highly successful and upwardly-mobile painter occasionally compared to the Spanish master Diego Velázquez, in his pre-illness career Goya was much sought-after by nobles and painted a number of group portraits which have since been interpreted as satires on the corruption and decay in the higher levels of Spanish rule.

In 1793 he suffered an undiagnosed illness–having, in the past, been criticised and attacked for bouts of illness while his career was in the ascent–and became deaf. His mood changed dramatically at roughly the same time. Speculation over the cause of this has failed to come to any concrete conclusion; it is possible that the same fever which induced hearing loss also affected him neurologically, or that losing his hearing changed his ability to relate to the society he was a part of, and left him feeling isolated and paranoid.

Spain was already in possession of a noteworthy school for the Deaf by the time of Goya’s deafening, but whether he would have felt it acceptable as an older man–in his fifties–to attend, or whether he felt able to learn sign language, is another matter. The illness itself has been tentatively suggested as Ménière’s disease, and other commentators on the life of Goya have posited that he may have suffered a brain injury resulting in paranoid dementia.

His most well-known works outside of Spain tend to come from his post-illness period. Both his depictions of the fantastical horrors of the mind and the all-too-real horrors of the Peninsula War (whose “hero”, the Duke of Wellington, he painted a portrait of) are vivid, dark, and haunting. While it is clear from his pre-illness body of work that he would have been a highly-prized artist regardless of his state of mental and physical health, it is possible that, unlike Vincent van Gogh, he would not have been so memorable had he not suffered.

In Art

Artists with disabilities in the past have expressed themselves about this in a variety of ways: ignoring their personal self to work on a commission, depicting in unwavering self-portraits their own image at the time, or changing their working style and medium to suit an acquired disability.

Artists without disabilities have also historically depicted individuals with disabilities, often fictional characters or archetypes, and this can often be reflective of how societies as a whole viewed these disabilities. It’s often embarrassing, offensive, or unpleasant for modern viewers to confront antiquated attitudes–sometimes worse because these attitudes haven’t shifted as much as we’d like to think.

Winter Landscape, Caspar David Friedrich (1811)

In Western culture, Christianity is everywhere. Almost any image produced before the 20th century (or late 19th) has to be viewed through the eyes of audiences who are regular church-goers and well-acquainted with many biblical stories to a far greater degree than we mostly are today!

In Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape, the church rises up out of freezing mists like a beacon of hope or an ominous overseer, depending on your perspective on the establishment of the church. Its shape is echoed in the foreground by a conifer tree (the evergreen of Christian faith, the symbol of the “new” faith overcoming the “old” deciduous faith, and also coincidentally just a common tree in the area), and the small but obvious crucifix in front of the tree helps to cement that association.

So we come to the little guy with his crutches. He’s abandoned them in the snow, some distance away from where he’s praying, which anyone who has ever or does ever use crutches will tell you is a dumb thing to do–how’s he going to get back to them? Everyone else would just lean them against the rock beside them to make it easier to get up and carry on (presumably towards the church) once they’d finished praying, right?

The thing about the distance of those crutches from the praying man is that they hint at a particular theme in the life of Christ–the healing of people with supposedly incurable disabilities. People who are paralytic, or blind, or have leprosy (a common affliction in the past but thankfully a lot rarer now) and on one occasion just straight-up dead have all, in the Gospels, received a new lease of life from the touch of God’s son. So for the highly biblically-literate onlooker, this picture heavily implies that the man who has abandoned his crutches in the snow has been the recipient of a miracle, and is praying in gratitude.

The framing of disabled people as objects of pity to be cured by a miraculous intervention often continues to this day in works of popular art, such as movies. There was a darker side to the view on disability in pre-20th Century Western society, too: many took the lead from the story of Paul’s Damascene conversion, in which he was afflicted with blindness and didn’t recover until he’d converted to Christianity, and believed that disability was some form of immediate divine retribution for bad behaviour.

Anna and the blind Tobit, Rembrandt, (1630)

The Book of Tobit wasn’t part of the official Protestant biblical texts but was part of the Catholic and Orthodox ones. But that didn’t stop people relating to the story of Tobit, who was afflicted with blindness and associated poverty by an an angel of the Lord as a means of testing the strength of the faith of the family. As the son of a Roman Catholic mother, even in a largely Protestant country, Rembrandt would have been familiar with the tale.

The subject matter works as an emblem of faith in adversity–the idea that no amount of suffering, even if caused by God, would make the really faithful give up God. As you can tell from that phrasing, it’s not a story that suggests there’s any inherent merit in disability or that there was much of a social safety network for someone with an acquired disability! In the Book of Tobit, the family are rewarded for their steadfastness with the removal of blindness, placing it in the tradition of stories where disability exists to be cured by divine intervention–and also in the tradition of stories where disability is a specific punishment or test.

Outside of the Christian faith, did attitudes to disability differ?

Carved ivory figure of a hunchback displaying the symptoms of Pott’s disease, Artist unknown (1st Century BCE)

This is likely a diagnostic model for an illness we now know as Pott’s Disease, a form of tuberculosis which instead of affecting the lungs, affects the spine. Egyptian doctors had a variety of treatments for various ailments and longer-term health issues, derived from their own understanding of the universe and the human body. By the first century BCE, when Egypt was ruled by a Greek dynasty, that knowledge would have mixed with the medicine of Greek doctors of the time too. The two cultures had opposing views on disability and illness, which must have made responses to cases of Pott’s Disease like this difficult to predict: Egypt’s history and moral teachings demanded respect for those with disabilities, and numbered at least one disabled Pharaoh (Tut). Meanwhile, Greek culture viewed disability as a punishment by the Gods.

Whatever the medical response to the affliction, as the makers of the illustrated medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy knew many, many centuries later, the most detailed description in the world is no substitute for a visual guide. A diagnostic model might well have been useful for training new doctors or reminding established ones.

Physical and postural difference, whether caused by injury, dietary deficiency, bone disease, or heredity, has been a rich source of material for writers and artists throughout history, whether taking a moralising view which implies physical setbacks are the result of deviant behaviour–or placing the “hunchback”, as Victor Hugo did in the Disney-adapted Hunchback of Notre Dame, in the role of the pitiful but heroic.

Image result for disney notre dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Walt Disney Pictures (1996)

But what of depictions of creators with disabilities themselves that aren’t self-portraits?

Traditions of depicting storytellers in particular as men (always men) with disabilities seem to have begun early in the West. Aesop, writer of many fables you probably know from your childhood and perhaps the originator of the phrase “sour grapes”, is in many traditions held to have been a man of several disabilities.

Marble terminal portrait bust of the blind poet Homer, Artist unknown (1st Century CE)

Although we don’t actually know if Homer was one individual person, even, there is still a tradition in place that the poet responsible for the composition of the epic works The Iliad and The Odyssey, two of the defining works of Western literature thanks to Europe’s preoccupation with Ancient Greek & Roman culture, was blind.

Ossian, Johan Frederick Clemens (1787)

When the Scottish poet James Macpherson ascribed his collection of “translated” Scots Gaelic poems to an ancient blind poet by the name of Ossian, he was almost certainly drawing on the classical tradition which held that Homer, another great epic poet, was blind. While a certain portion of Macpherson’s work in the 18th Century was taken from traditional ballads, and some significantly earlier texts do make reference to a poet by his name from some further centuries prior, it’s probable that his decision to make his narrator a blind elder poet was as much influenced by a classical education as it was by the tradition of Highland poetry!

But why would such an association come about? Perhaps it is the persistent myth that disabilities of the body automatically confer great talents in other areas–a version of which also now exists in the idea that autism automatically confers superpowers. The reality, as most disabled people will tell the abled, is that ability, skill, talent, and attainment are wildly variable among disabled people as they are among the abled, and that all kinds of other factors (practice, privilege, sustained interest, the social value on what you’re studying or practising at…) have a role in that! Factors like a world and society that unthinkingly blocks access to a lot of disabled people, and the additional living costs or time lost to pain can hold back the potential of of many disabled people too.

Historically, as in the present, it’s not only the unthinking failure to provide access and adaptation which cause problems for disabled members of various cultures.

Bronze figure of a dancing female dwarf, Artist unknown (150BCE-100BCE)

Classical Greek and Roman culture were pretty fixated on bodily “perfection” (you may have noticed this from their highly idealised statues). The flip side of this was that they had some often unpleasant attitudes towards disability–as we’ve seen above, the Hellenes (Ancient Greeks) thought disability was a punishment from the Gods, although their gods were not always considered rational either! The story of Tiresias, cursed by Hera with blindness, but compensated by Zeus with the power of foresight, shows a complicated relationship with the ideas of just punishment and disability.

The figure above belongs to a long, puzzling tradition that spans a lot of Europe and also Egyptian history: association of people under average height with entertainment, in particular comedy. Dwarf gladiators in Rome, actors in Greece, “court dwarves” in Italy, France, Spain, and England throughout the Middle Ages; and “freak show” culture in America in the 20th century all have undercurrents of cruelty and fascination with smaller bodies.

But in Ancient Egypt, the god of music and theatre, Bes, was usually depicted as a dwarf. And the contemptuous or pitying attitude towards disability seems to change shape once we step outside of Europe…

Left: Viṣṇu as Vamana, his dwarf incarnation, Artist unknown (18thC-19thC)
Right: Li Tieguai, Artist unknown (1580-1644/Ming Dynasty)

The great creator Vishnu takes on his form as Vamana, a word which simply means “dwarf” in Sanskrit, as part of a ruse to trick the Asure king Mahabali into relinquishing the disproportionate power he’d attained. While the story is tempting to read as a straight analogy for not judging by appearances or not underestimating people based on stature, there are doubtless many, many more layers of interpretation involved.

Li Tieguai (Iron Crutch Li) is one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism. A figure of complexity, he is considered an irascible, bad-tempered and clownish figure–but also one whose benevolence to the poor and needy and tendency to heal their hurts is a key part of his make-up. The story of his incarnation as an elderly man with a non-functional leg is a series of mishaps which in Western literature would qualify it structurally at least as a piece of folk lore.

Lessons in neither underestimating nor overlooking non-standard bodies arise in folklore and the canon of various faiths quite often, but almost always seem to revolve around the idea of miraculous cures and temporary conditions.

And now?

The treatment of work by disabled artists continues very much to fall between the poles of erasing the disability of the artist, or fetishing it at the expense of the art.

Art depicting disability, however, seems to have fared rather better. While it occasionally causes uproar among the abled confronting possibilities of their own future, the rise in profile of parathletes in particular has led to a wealth of depictions honouring achievement rather than painting all forms of disability as unabated punishment, suffering, or moral lessons on compassion and fortitude.

This has its own issues: another favourite story for newspapers is the “they didn’t let their disability hold them back (so no one else is allowed to need help)” story. The circumstances of different disabled people in the past and present are always different from each other! A Pharaoh with a leg he can’t use is still a Pharoah, and a beggar, blind or not, doesn’t have access to the same kind of support.



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