“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” - Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is one the most iconic female painters of the twentieth century. With her unique style and way of thinking, she created symbolic paintings that beautifully depicted her tormented life. In 1925, when she was only 18 years old, the bus she was on crashed with terrible consequences. One of the handrails pierced her body, causing severe damage, mainly on her spine. After several surgeries, she regained movement but lived in constant pain for the rest of her life.
Instead of being defeated by the pain, she used it as an artistic inspiration and theme in her paintings. Throughout her prolific career, Frida depicted her visions about life using pain as a boost to overcome her condition. It is no wonder she is greatly admired for this artistic resilience.
Many other painters have suffered from medical diseases, which are reflected in their paintings. Below are 8 artists whose medical condition wasn't an obstacle for their art, but a source of inspiration and creativity.
Pierre-Auguste Rembrandt - Stereo Blindness
This famous painter, considered a central figure in the Impressionist movement, led a relatively healthy life until his last years, where he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which is the progressive appearance of deformities on his arms, and ankylosis, a disease that impairs movement. However, this never stopped him from painting. Although he was able to grab the brush, he needed constant help from others to hold it in place while he painted. In 2004, neuroscientists Margaret S. Livingstone and Bevil Conway analyzed most of his paintings and proved that the emblematic painter suffered from stereo blindness, an affliction that impedes the individual to perceive the third dimension. If one looks closely at his portraits, especially into the eyes of the subjects, one can appreciate a slight misalignment that displays the way he saw life.
Doménicos Theotokópoulos (El Greco) - Severe Astigmatism
Born in Crete, El Greco developed his craft in Spain as one of the most representative artists of the Spanish Renaissance. His elongated figures have been the object of many controversies. In 1913, a theory suggested that El Greco had severe astigmatism, which made him perceive distorted images. This theory continues to hold sway but more recent studies are pointing in the other direction. Scientist Stuart Anstis of the University of California, stressed that people with this condition require correction glasses and if they're not used they only present blurry vision. Obviously this handy object didn't exist in El Greco's time.
Whether the theory is relevant or not, we cannot deny El Greco's masterful painting abilities.
Claude Monet - Cataracts
As one of the founders of Impressionism, Monet developed cataracts with age. As Michael Marmor M.D. states in his study Ophthalmology and Art, "their late works were strangely coarse or garnish and seemed out of character to the finer works that these artists had produced over the years." Cataracts are produced by the opacity of the eye lens, which provokes a distortion of color and affects clarity of vision.
Paul Cézanne - Myopia
It would appear sight conditions were a constant issue for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. Paul Cézanne had Myopia, a condition that makes distant objects to look blurry. Through photographs and compiled anecdotes, specialists know that Cézanne never wore glasses and his minor condition can be appreciated in his paintings where long-range images look blurred. It is believed that many Impressionist artists, like Degas (Retinal disease) or Matisse (myopia as well), had sight conditions, which may have influenced that particular style.
Vincent van Gogh - Glaucoma
Known for suffering from severedepression ,and leading a tormented life, recent studies have revealed that the iconic artist also had Glaucoma. One of the main symptoms is the apparition of dark halos in the vision. In Power of the Gene, Chris Murgatroyd states that this can be seen in how the artist surrounds his subjects with a halo.
Toulouse-Lautrec - Pycnodysostosis
The artist who developed his work during the Belle Epoque had a genetic disease called Pycnodysostosis (also known as the Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome due to the rareness of the condition), a defect which prevents bone regrowth, making them fragile. Another consequence of this disease is short stature. In the same book by Murgatroyd, he explains that this can be seen in his cut-off technique in which figures are cut from the frame.
Paul Klee - Systemic Sclerosis
According to J. Bogousslavsky, M.G. Hennerici, H. Baezner, and C. Bassetti in his Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, during his last 5 years, the Swiss painter suffered terrible symptoms of Scleroderma, a disabling autoimmune disease that hardens the skin and some internal organs like lungs, kidneys, heart, among others. It's a progressive condition where the immune system attacks healthy tissue, provoking rigidness. In his sketch called Suddenly Rigid (1940) Klee depicts a stiff figure with no visible limbs, which alludes to the rapid progression of his disease.
Egon Schiele - Dystonia
Self-Portrait with Checkered Shirt (1917)
The famous artist, considered the main representative of Austrian Expressionism, allegedly suffered from a neurological disease known as dystonia. This illness causes muscle contractions, which produce abnormal postures. According to Bogousslavsky, his condition enabled him to open the doors of the outside world and capture a young Vienna in its primordial state of conflict
Art always depicts an artists' reality. Some of them do it as openly as Frida Kahlo, as a process of dealing with pain. Others just adapt their obstacles to their lives, portraying them in beautiful images. If you're interested in the life of great artists, don't miss The Documentary That Captures Monet’s Life Through His Letters or The Photographer Who Captured The Pain And Frustration Of Frida Kahlo’s Worst Moments.