Take the CAN Disability Aesthetics Tour, at the Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) is one of Cleveland’s most accessible art resources, both physically and financially. Its world-class collection is housed in an accessible building and enhanced with exceptional digital accessibility tools. We love the CMA without reservation. But like most art institutions, it has failed to address the degree to which the lives, works, and identities of artists are shaped by disability.
The stigma surrounding disability encourages art historians to quietly ignore its impact on aesthetics. This tour celebrates the museum’s collection, in which disabled artists are already (silently) being given places of highest honor.
This guide is loosely chronological.
ITALIAN RENAISSANCE, ROOM 117A
In many ways, we owe the flowering of the Italian Renaissance to the cultural influence and art patronage of a single family: the Medici. Let’s begin by acknowledging the role that a genetic predisposition to certain disabilities played in shaping the temperament and character of their line. The Medici tended to develop early rheumatoid chronic illnesses, and most were affected by familial high myopia. As a leading family in Florence, they fostered a culture that valued scholarly or artistic pursuits over sporting, hunting, or soldiering. History would be dramatically different if the Medici line had the able-bodied privilege to choose sporting games over intellectual entertainments.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)
Chronic illness, arthritis
We’re listing Michelangelo where his work is normally displayed. Through January 5, the CMA’s collection joins internationally-loaned works for Michelangelo: Mind of the Master in the Special Exhibition Hall.
Michelangelo began experiencing severe chronic illness in his early 40s, and his personal letters documented the challenges of continuing to work with such “bodily infirmities.”
If you are able to attend Mind of the Master in person, pay attention to changes in line quality between his early career and his later work. In his early sketches, he often completes the entire outline of a limb or torso with a single movement and consistent line strength. In later work, he has adjusted this style to accommodate for damaged joints, often joining smaller strokes to form longer lines. Rather than weakening the work, this adaptation increases the expressivity of the lines through organic, overlapping marks that capture emotion rather than pure technique.
Andrea Riccio (1470–1531)
Lifelong arthritic condition
Many artists on this tour became disabled mid-career, allowing viewers to observe changes and adaptations in their work. Others, like Andrea Riccio, became disabled early and are guided into the arts by the nature of their disability. The Pomona figure, on view in this room, is attributed to his circle. The son of a goldsmith, Riccio was unable to carry on his father’s profession because of an arthritic condition in his hands. He discovered bronze sculpture to be far more accessible because the detail work and modelling is done in wax. Riccio is famous for the degree of detail in his small-scale works and the delicacy of his handling—traits that draw from his training in precious metals and jewelry.
BAROQUE PAINTING & SCULPTURE, ROOM 212 / DUTCH PAINTING, ROOM 213
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
It is commonly taught that at the height of his fame, Rubens maintained a large number of students and studio assistants who often did the less complex tasks of filling in backgrounds and underpaintings. Then, Rubens himself would complete details, like hands and faces, and embellish the work with his skillful bravura brushwork.
What is less well-known is that while the use of studio assistants was not unusual, in Rubens’s case it was also a vital accommodation for disability. His condition affected his hands, knees, and feet, causing swelling, joint damage, and pain. During flare-ups he was often bedridden, and at the best of times he had limited stamina for standing and working. Rubens’s illness was proscribing his activities by 1620 when his “disciples” served as his hands to paint his commissioned designs on the ceiling of a local Jesuit church. Disability was a defining feature of Ruben’s work for at least two-thirds of his studio’s history.
Medical historians have argued fiercely about an appropriate diagnosis of his condition; at the time, “gout” was a loosely-defined diagnosis covering multiple rheumatic or autoimmune conditions. Rheumatoid arthritis is a likely candidate due to hands and feet that appear affected by this condition throughout his paintings. Look closely at the goddess’s toes in Diana and Her Nymphs Departing for the Hunt (c1615), where her big toe turns sharply at the base and the toe is inflamed. It isn’t uncommon for artists to glance at their own hands and feet for anatomical reference, but it’s equally possible that one or more of his models were also chronically ill.
The intermittent nature of Rubens’s disorder meant that, at times, he could complete work unaided, but to do so would have limited the number of his designs that could make the leap from study to full-size work. Furthermore, his close working relationship with assistants provided the art world with more than just a higher quantity of work; he trained them to discover their own practices, and through them his influence spread even farther. One such student, Anthony van Dyck, is particularly worth noting, both because of his defining influence on British portraiture and because one of his paintings—A Genoese Lady with Her Child (c1623-1625) is present in Room 212. Van Dyck’s painting is included in our ArtLens tour because, inasmuch as artists can be said to birth their art, this painting is Rubens’s grandchild.
FRENCH NEOCLASSICAL PAINTING & SCULPTURE, ROOM 201
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Facial difference, speech disorder
Jacques-Louis David’s Cupid and Psyche (1817) is a Neoclassical masterpiece and among the CMA’s best-known holdings. David was a visibly disabled artist, whose progressive tumor-like facial deformity first appeared in his youth and caused facial palsy, difficulty eating, and a significant speech disorder. He was openly mocked in high society, given the cruel moniker “David of the tumor.” He developed a fierce hatred for the Royal Academy as they denied him the scholarships, positions, and exhibition opportunities awarded to his peers. While he was eventually allowed membership, friction with the administration remained. David’s anti-authoritarian anger was increasingly visible as he aligned with Robespierre and the Republicans, and many of his paintings of this time can be understood as Revolutionary propaganda. He would eventually be a vital part of the French Revolution, joining the National Convention as a planner of festivals and signer of death warrants (including for the king who had once tried to censor his work). In this position, he also made significant changes to the administration of the Royal Academy.
David’s disability likely saved his life during The Terror. He was home with complications of illness when the council guillotined Robespierre, and historians suggest David would have joined him in death had he been in Paris. Nonetheless, he was arrested by the Republic, though allowed to continue painting during his imprisonment. The work he made there, The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running Between the Combatants (Louvre, 1799), is his first of several paintings begging for love to conquer conflict. David went on to serve as court painter to Napoleon, though he declined to accompany the new leader on his conquests due to his infirmity. When the Bourbon kings returned, David refused both their pardon and offer of work, choosing exile instead. He would live out the rest of his life in Brussels with his wife, training students and completing his two last odes to a love that conquers all: Cupid and Psyche is the first of these. The second is even clearer in its metaphorical meaning, titled Mars Being Disarmed by Venus (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 1824).
Note: There’s also a lesser-known David painting (Young Woman with a Turban, c1780) in Room 216B.
Francisco Goya (1746–1828)
Deaf, chronic physical and mental illness
Because of the intense and often nightmarish quality of his work (a quality more visible in CMA’s collection of his print work than in the paintings on view), Goya is an artist whose mental illness and history of hallucinations does get discussed as a contributing factor to his subject matter.
Goya’s personal journey into disability began with a prolonged illness in 1792. This caused temporary blindness and permanent total hearing loss. It’s reported that his hallucinations and melancholia also began with this illness. Thereafter, his work became increasingly divided between art made for his professional duties—including portraiture, of which Don Juan Antonio Cuervo (1819) and St. Ambrose (c1796-1799) are examples)—and personal work that explored his new insights into society and the experience of his disability. For the next forty-odd years, he used sign language to communicate, became increasingly comfortable in expressing his new visual differences in paint, and integrated his hallucinatory experiences into his artwork.
Today, Goya is best known for the unique expressivity of his work, the distorted emotional figures that emerged only after he lost his hearing, and the frequently fantastic themes that accompanied his mental illness. These on-view portraits may not be his most personal work, but it still captures his hallmark way of seeing the human figure and expressing emotion through paint. It was a style of painting (and a form of seeing) that many abled artists would attempt to emulate, but none would fully reproduce.
BRITISH PAINTING & DECORATIVE ARTS, ROOM 203A
William Blake (1757–1827)
Lifelong hallucinations, chronic illness
In addition to a chronic gut disorder, Blake also experienced audio-visual hallucinations that he celebrated as a direct experience of the spiritual realm. Blake is one of few artists in this tour whose work –such as the 1799 tempera-on-canvas St. Matthew–is routinely discussed in the context of his disability. The ArtLens description notes that, “like St. Matthew, William Blake reported having visions of angels throughout his life.” Blake is a uniquely significant figure in disability aesthetics because he actively discussed his disabilities in his work while arguing for a new social conception of disability.
His work only grew stronger the sicker he became, and his most influential visual work (The Divine Comedy) was done on his deathbed. The CMA’s collection (available online) also includes prints from his Book of Job, a fierce apology for the moral purity, and perhaps even the moral superiority, of those suffering from illness or ill-fate.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)
Cataracts, Parkinson’s, likely neurodivergence
J. M. W. Turner’s Parkinson’s-related hand tremors began to significantly affect his working style by 1835, the same year he painted The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. His disabled years are sometimes referred to as “late in his life,” but this era represents a third of his career and includes the increasingly-abstracted works that are his most significant contribution to modern and contemporary art.
In addition to experiencing progressive physical challenges, Turner’s later career was also impacted by two decades of slowly changing vision due to cataracts. During this period, his handling of paint became less tight and more expressive, and his work showed changes in approach to refracted light, focal distances, and detail-versus-abstraction. The paintings in this room represent a contrast between an early stage of his development (Mountain Landscape, Bonneville, Savoy, c1802) and a middle stage as his disability was just beginning.
Scholars have discussed how his cataracts would have served to create both fog and a dazzle of refracted light in the center of his vision, while preserving some details around the edges. This is precisely the common pattern in Turner’s large paintings during that time, suggesting that he was not embracing abstraction but was continuing to faithfully paint what he saw.
But Turner was also creating prints and watercolors that (while showing more abstraction than his earliest work) were considerably more detailed than his paintings with less visual distortion. Consider the 1845 Flüelen, from the Lake of Lucerne, in CMA’s collection online. Clearly, he was capable of recognizing and adjusting for the changes in his vision—he was not being forced into abstraction by his inability to see.
Turner (like many of the Parisian Impressionists) is choosing to portray his experienced and observed reality, knowing that the only way to do so is to create something that others will view as abstracted. He chose to tell the truth about his individual vision of the world rather than try to conform his painting to able-bodied expectations of what the world should look like. And in painting with such realism, Turner created groundbreaking work that future generations of young abstractionists would struggle to recreate (and usually fail, due to their lack of disabled experiences).
In addition to Parkinson’s and vision-related disabilities, Turner is likely to have had an undiagnosed mental illness or neurodiversity (neither schizophrenia nor autism were defined until the twentieth century), based on contemporary reports of his intensely eccentric and reclusive behavior, particularly in combination with the fact that his mother died in a mental institution.
AMERICAN & BRITISH DECORATIVE ARTS, ROOM 203B
Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795)
Mobility impaired, amputee
The child of a potter, Wedgwood was disabled since childhood, unable to fully use his right leg (which would eventually be amputated, prior to the creation of Portland Vase, c1790). Unable to kick the potter’s wheel, he focused on both developing his design skills and devising ways to use assistants and other adaptations for his wheel. Perhaps it was this difficulty that encouraged his research into the industrialization of ceramics, for he eventually created the first true pottery factory. He went on to become the first mass-producing ceramics artist, also recognized as the father of modern marketing strategies. He invented multiple unique ceramics techniques including basalt and glazes that imitate jasper and other stone.
Fun Fact: Wedgwood was a prominent abolitionist and the grandfather of Charles Darwin.
AMERICAN LANDSCAPE, ROOM 206
Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865)
Lifelong paralysis of the legs
Lane’s stunning landscapes exist, in large part, courtesy of his disability. He came from a working-class family of sailmakers, and he likely would have followed in his father’s footsteps had he not been disabled. Instead, he spent his childhood in self-instruction of art. Unlike his abled peers from wealthier families, he could not study painting in Europe and instead trained with lithographers in America. This brand of lithography is particularly detail-oriented, and that precision persists in paintings such as Harbor of Boston, with the City in the Distance (c1846-1847).
Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872)
Duncanson was a self-taught artist. The son of slaves, he lived as a free Black man in antebellum Ohio, and gathered around him one of the country’s first thriving Black artistic communities. He was one of the first Black American painters to receive international acclaim—heralded as one of the best landscape artists in the West—and to be welcomed into elite circles in London and abroad. It is unknown when his mental illness first manifested, as he’d been described as obsessive or temperamental early in his career. What is certain is that in his late 40s he began to make claims that he was possessed by a master painter who was creating work through him. At age 51, just four years after painting Vale of Kashmir (1867) shown here, he had a severe seizure while hanging a show, and his family had him committed to Michigan State Retreat. Shortly thereafter, the doctors claimed that his behavior was too radical to receive visitors, and refused to let his family come to check on his condition. Three months later he was dead, of “unknown causes.”
The issue of disability justice is particularly pressing for disabled people of color. At our current moment in history there is much discussion about the way in which contemporary medical and legal systems engage in systematic violence against Black disabled and mentally ill people. Duncanson’s work has been reevaluated for its historical significance in a post-Civil-Rights era and is now seen as both groundbreaking and aspirational. Likewise, it needs to be seen in light of the threats and challenges faced by disabled people of color, particularly in regards to how their treatment may differ from that of their white peers, even among artists with the same diagnosis. Today Duncanson’s skillful and sometimes prophetic images remain as a testament to his resilience, and a reminder of the fragility of freedom.
AMERICAN REALISM, ROOM 207
Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1817)
Chronic illness, neurodivergence (possibly autism)
Ryder spent the majority of his life seeking help for a chronic illness (involving arthritic symptoms, insomnia, and extreme fatigue). This unknown disorder would eventually prove fatal, despite multiple doctors wrongly attributing it to neuroasthenia (a mental illness diagnosis which, like hysteria, is no longer in use). His actual psychological condition was likely a form of autism, based on modern analysis, but accompanied by physical comorbidities that remain unknown due to their attribution to his psychological state. An unfinished letter in 1897 perfectly encapsulates the struggle that so many people with both mental and physical illness face when trying to elucidate symptoms to doctors or peers: “If/when I get cured I could only learn to have language so as not to be continually misunderstood…I am still quite weak in the head.”
Ryder’s creative use of material reflected his neurodiversity in the repetitive labor of their creation. (He worked on the same pieces for years, slowly adding layers.) His unusual use of non-archival materials created dramatic effects in the short term, but the images were fated to lose their color and depth as the materials aged. There’s no evidence that this breakdown of non-archival materials was a conceptual choice (in his later years, Ryder tried desperately to repair the decaying work), but there is a beautifully poetic parallel between the artist and his work, both proving impossible to restore. This poetry is particularly vivid in the work on display here, The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse, c1896-1908), which was created during a period when Ryder was frantically considering more and more extreme cures, ranging from pseudo-medical chicanery to the more sensible strategy of traveling in search of better climates, literally trying to outrace his death.
William Sidney Mount (1807–1868)
Mount lived most of his life with what is vaguely described as “ill health.” This illness interrupted his training with the portrait painter Henry Inman, though he later described this departure as a desire to develop his own original style. Both are likely true, as most disabled and chronically ill artists find that they need unique adaptations to their painting styles.
William Michael Harnett (1848–1892)
Rheumatism, kidney disease
Harnett was in and out of hospitals throughout his life with chronic and progressive rheumatic and kidney diseases that caused pain and joint issues. In the later half of his career, his painting speed reduced. This is commonly attributed to progression of the medical conditions that would eventually prove fatal. However, his later work had more complex and ambitious compositions that likely took longer to create. Some rheumatic painters adapt to their disability by embracing rougher brushwork, but Harnett took the opposite route, as is visible in Momento Mori, “To This Favour” (1879). Unable to trust his hands with reliably masterful brushwork, he avoided impasto and bravura techniques in favor of a glossy surface, free of visible brushwork. Oils are forgiving in that way—if a hand trembles and a stroke goes wrong, they can be corrected or reworked, making brushmark-free painting more accessible than methods which rely on precise control. Yet this smoothness isn’t just an obvious adaptation, it’s also a conscious decision to embrace what might now be called hyperrealism—a bravura of observation and rendering rather than of brushwork. This may have put him at odds with dominant art tastes of the time, both separating him from the Academies (due to his interest in the mundane) and from the avant-garde Impressionists who embraced such visible handwork. Nonetheless, his work is a stunning precursor to the Postmodern interest in banal objects (providing it with a tangible link to older still life) and foreshadows the arrival of photorealism a hundred years later.
IMPRESSIONISM, ROOM 222
We’ve reached an art movement where the aesthetic was shaped by disability. Significant (and generally progressive) vision impairments were fundamental to the nature of the Impressionists’ work and the majority of its founders were disabled:
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Myopia, color-blindness, retinopathy, “visual disturbances,” diabetes
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Myopia, disabling cataracts, mental illness
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Progressive blindness, likely retinopathy
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
Early myopia, later chronic eye disorders
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Myopia (non-disabling), rheumatoid arthritis, wheelchair user
Impressionism differs from the surrounding art environment in how it deals with light and abstraction, prioritizing the scattering, movement, blurs, and colors of light over accurate details in rendering. As the movement progressed, the more the work portrayed the world in terms of ever-moving light rather than concrete matter, and this evolution runs parallel to increased loss of visual acuity among the artists. Looking at art here in Room 222:
Cézanne’s Mount Sainte-Victoire (c1904) makes well-studied use of color theory at a time when the artist was increasingly color blind and experiencing “cerebral disturbances” to his vision. Cézanne had lifelong myopia which he elected not to treat for the sake of preserving his unique personal vision style; he’s said to have fiercely rejected corrective lenses with the words “take away those vulgar things!”
Monet’s Water Lilies (Agapanthus, c1915-1926) was painted well after his perception of light was further altered by cataracts in addition to his pre-existing myopia. (By today’s diagnostic standards, he was likely legally blind when he painted this work.)
Degas had long been blind in one eye and he slowly lost most sight in his other eye as well. His works here (such as Frieze of Dancers (c.1895) show various points in that trajectory. In the end, he had to abandon painting for the more tactile art of sculpture, as seen in the work Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (1896-1897).
Pissarro and Renoir were both reportedly myopic throughout their life [though not disabled in this way at the time their works here—Pissarro’s Edge of the Woods Near L’Hermitage, Pontoise (1879) and Renoir’s Romaine Lacaux (1864) and The Apple Seller (c. 1890)– were painted]. Renoir’s later work was done from a wheelchair, but he would never go blind. Pissarro, on the other hand, would spend his last fifteen years with a severe chronic eye condition, for which he refused surgery. (Sadly, fellow vision-impaired Impressionist Mary Cassatt did undergo such risky surgeries and was left without even minimal light perception).
The innovations of this movement are by no means merely ineptitude caused by poor sight. Contemporary reviews of their early shows mocked the work as the result of poor eyesight, but later writers wisely dismissed this accusation. Richard Kendall wrote, “Impressionist pictures cannot be seen as facsimiles of myopic vision [because] the element of artistic selection, of discrimination and manipulation, always determined the pictures’ final appearance.” These artists did not “blindly” recreate visual impairments—rather, they had access to alternative ways of seeing which contributed to a new philosophy.
It should never be assumed that low-vision painters mechanically paint their vision loss in the way that a broken camera takes out-of-focus photos. It’s popular to suggest that Monet’s increasingly dark and soft-focus garden landscapes were indicative of his increased vision loss, and that the renewed brightness of his paintings post-surgery was a direct result of restored sight. In terms of a working timeline, this is true and deserves comment—but this can be understood as correlation, not causation.
Degas once said, “I am convinced that these differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. [All seeing] is false; and it is that falsity that constitutes art.” He spoke as a painter who was already mostly blind, unable to work outdoors due to visual disturbances, and who relied on careful planning in pursuit of his composition—choices made because he understood the tension between vision constructed with the mind and vision perceived by the eye.
Low-vision/blind artists have a wide range of adaptive techniques that allow them to interrogate and control what they perceive and how they choose or manage color and detail in their paint. It would be willful ignorance to assume that Monet did not remember the color of water or did not realize when he was putting red on the canvas instead of blue—he surely knew what colors he was applying (as did Cézanne when he created landscapes after becoming largely color blind). Monet’s change in palette from blue to red should be understood as expression. Likewise, while his cataracts may have caused the water lilies in his garden to refract light and to glow as they do on this canvas, he had the choice to either correct for that refraction or embrace it.
Like Turner’s embrace of cataractic light, the Impressionists should not be mistaken for abled painters choosing radical style shifts out of pure rebellion against artistic history. This is a choice to embrace and share their own authentic, disabled experiences.
To quote Degas one last time: “Drawing isn’t a matter of what you see, it’s a question of what you can make other people see.” What the Impressionists chose to make others see was a simulation of myopia and partial blindness that was easily recognizable as such, but is neither reducible to its medical cause nor easily reproduced by those who lack it (despite generations of art teachers suggesting “squinting” as a way for students to access their inner Monet).
POST-IMPRESSIONISM, ROOM 222
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Chronic physical and mental illness, seizure disorder
Van Gogh’s mental illness is widely discussed in terms of his creative output, so here we’ll mostly bring attention to his less-discussed physical disability.
Van Gogh had chronic issues with cough, fatigue, and an undiagnosed condition of “ill health.” While in Paris, he’d been active in the contemporary art scene, joining Gauguin’s circle in their rejection of both realistic academic art and soft-focus Impressionism. Who knows how different his legacy (or mental health) might have been if he’d been able to remain among them? Following medical advice for his health problems, he moved to Arles in search of cleaner air. Neither his hopes for healing nor an artist colony there would ever fully materialize.
Van Gogh convinced Gauguin, by then an intimate friend, to accompany him to Arles. They lived together for over two months, during which the profoundly beautiful scenery and intensity of their creative relationship gave both of them creative breakthroughs (and arguably led to a case of shared syphilis). However, Gauguin left after a fight between the two culminated in van Gogh losing part of an ear. (Thereafter, Gauguin would continue to pursue his new visions of nature in a more tropical setting.)
Van Gogh’s mental and physical health continued to deteriorate. In the absence of his friends, and progressively trapped in a series of asylums and hostile rural areas, his social and physical isolation led to a continual worsening of his pre-existing psychiatric conditions. Yet that isolation allowed his work to mutate and develop in ways that were not overly-influenced by his contemporaries. He stands as an utterly unique voice in the era because he was, at this point in his life, utterly alone. Despite this profound loneliness, his work is full of vibrant color, exuberant paint work, and a sense that both color and the world itself is seething with a meaning only he knows.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Redon’s childhood was spent in complete isolation at the family’s country estate due to the social stigma associated with epilepsy. He describes these seizures in his autobiography as “very disquieting moments of loss of consciousness.” His public autobiography does not speak of seizures in his adulthood—but after such a childhood, he’d have incentive to remain closeted.
His work maintained a unique interest in this idea of the mind’s absence from the body and a deep affinity for the description of hallucinatory states; for example, Orpheus (c1903-1910, not on view, but in the CMA’s collection) refers to a mythological artist who journeys into the underworld and returns, showing only a disconnected head and a lyre. As the CMA writes about Symbolic Head (c1890, on view), “In these images, the separation of the head from the body symbolizes the spirit released from the material world. It also suggests a metaphor for abandoning physical reality for the inner realm of dreams, fantasy, and poetic reverie.” It’s only a small step to suggest that the separation of the spirit and body that Redon obsessively portrays is not only metaphorical but also a reference to his own lived experience.
As a classically-educated man, Redon would have known that in ancient works epilepsy was referred to as “the sacred disease” due to the belief that epileptics communed with the divine in their seizures. A similar sense of communication with the supernatural is present in his work. (Modern medical literature notes it’s not uncommon for seizures to be experienced with hallucinations or a heightened sense of spiritual import that may persist for several days post-seizure.)
Like Goya, to whom Redon often turned as an inspiration and historical kindred spirit, his paintings differ significantly from those of his contemporaries within the same movement in terms of their dark and often spiritual nature. A common thread runs through the two: both are attempting to paint that which they have experienced and yet which cannot be entirely shared with those (un)fortunate enough not to have experienced a disruption of their realities.
Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)
Chronic illness, likely mental illness (bipolar or anxiety)
After his mother’s death, young Segantini first lived with an impoverished family member, and then on the streets, before being sent to a “reformatory” workhouse. Eventually, his brother would claim him, and a year later (still unable to read or write) he would start art school. He was described as a “frail” child—and though it’s unclear how much of that was due to extreme poverty, this chronic ill health continued into his better-fed adulthood. (Segantini’s irregular childhood also left him without official citizenship in any country, at times restricting his ability to travel—his moves to study or exhibit in Italy, France, and Switzerland were all illegal migrations.)
His history lacks a singular diagnosis, though it’s clear that he continued experiencing disability. Modern research suggests that childhood trauma and abuse may lead to idiopathic chronic poor health, which is a potential fit. These difficulties may also have contributed to mental health issues, as he was widely described as neurotic.
Despite these difficulties, his work is famous for its spiritual luminosity. Both his earlier landscapes and his later symbolist work show rural nature (particularly that of the Alps) as a translucent, divine force. Describing Pine Tree (c1897), the CMA suggests “the artist may have intended that the bent, twisted tree, struggling for survival against alpine storms, is a metaphor for human perseverance.” In line with Segantini’s symbolist leanings, one must consider not only that the tree is struggling to survive in poor, literally incomplete (unpainted) soil, but also that it has been physically bent and damaged by the process. As such, it is a fascinating, albeit esoteric, symbol for Segantini’s own life, as well as for the wider intersecting struggles people face based on economic class, disability, and citizenship rights.
AMERICAN GILDED AGE & REALISM, ROOM 208
George E. Ohr (1857–1918)
Ohr self-identified as mad, happily accepting his designation as “The Mad Potter of Biloxi.” Neither his family nor neighbors disagreed. Among his eccentricities was an unwavering faith in his own work, even when all the contemporary evidence suggested failure. Ohr was convinced that his work would one day be priceless. Despite seldom making sales, he confidently billed himself on signs as “Unequaled unrivaled—undisputed—GREATEST ARTPOTTER ON THE EARTH.” When he retired at age 52, he claimed never to have sold a single pot, though this is likely an exaggeration. It is true, however, that when the studio closed he left around 7,000 unique art pots carefully crated up in a garage.
Ohr seems to have been sometimes aware of the disconnect between his delusions of grandeur and the failure of his career. He always acknowledged his madness, but only rarely would he admit to the chance that he might be mistaken about the work’s value, which he insisted must be worth its weight in gold. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t live to see the era in which that prophecy came true.
For an untrained eye today, George Ohr’s work such as his stoneware Vase (c. 1900) may not seem revolutionary. In this post-industrial era, the use of metallic and brilliantly colored glazes is common enough, and the flowering, irregular and almost-organic shapes seem unsurprising a century later. But their uniqueness lies in their timeline: he was an obscure potter from a small American town, disconnected from any shared artistic movement—and yet his work foretold the arrival of abstract expressionism a full generation early. When the sealed crates were rediscovered by an art investor, art historians were shocked to see how the energetic, emotional abstraction of Modernism had already manifested once before, unheralded and decades early in a tiny town in Mississippi. Today, he is indeed generally recognized as the most groundbreaking art potter of his time.
Not all delusions are prophecies, of course. Many “mad” artists have died in obscurity and their work never rediscovered in the way that Ohr’s or Van Gogh’s has been. Nonetheless, in a tour of the history of how disability interacts with creativity and with art history, there is something mythically satisfying about this story. Ohr claimed to be “the apostle of individuality”—and this fierce belief gave him the strength to create such unprecedented work, to labor for years without any outside affirmation or recognition, and in that labor to make his visions a reality.
Maurice Prendergast (1858–1925)
Prendergast trained among the Impressionists and their successors in Paris, returning to America with that knowledge. Earning a living through his framing shop, he continued producing small paintings and prints. In the 1890s, he began to experience hearing loss; he was entirely deaf by 1907. At that point in Deaf history, sign language was actively repressed and late-deafened individuals were unlikely to learn it or be connected to a larger Deaf community. This accounts, in part, for Prendergast’s reported reclusiveness and social isolation in the second half of his career. Despite communication barriers and isolation, he was an active part of the post-Impressionist movement and worked closely with William Glackens.
In 1914, he moved with his brother to New York City. There his paintings received some acclaim, and he began to create larger and more ambitious work, such as On the Beach, No. 3 (c1915-1918), showing here. In his final years, he suffered from generalized ill health and circulation issues, but continued to paint until the end.
An interesting element in Prendergast’s work is that he rarely includes faces in his paintings. The images are lively and joyful arrangements, not in the least melancholic—but there is a degree of alienation between the artist and his figures.
19TH CENTURY EUROPEAN, ROOM 219
Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901)
Chronic illness/fatigue, rheumatism, depression
Böcklin’s progressive illness caused chronic pain and reduced mobility, which contributed to suicidal bouts of depression. Ruin by the Sea (1881), showing here, speaks to this experience.
Though his early works were often landscapes, at this point in his career Böcklin was working as a symbolist (whose work was explicitly metaphorical or mythological). Ruin by the Sea may seem to revisit his landscape period, but it was painted while he was working on six versions of his symbolist masterpiece Isle of the Dead (1880-1886, five extant versions held in New York, Basel, Berlin, Leipzig and St. Petersburg). The ecosystem of that work bears a striking similarity to Cleveland’s painting, with similar cypress trees and towering shorelines with ruined architecture. If the two images are not meant as alternative perspectives of the same imagined landscape, they are at least created from the same wellspring.
In 1880, Böcklin fell into suicidal depression as he was finishing the first Isle of the Dead commission. His grief had physical causes: In addition to prior health issues, he was no longer able to hold a brush without excruciating pain. Medical treatments had proven ineffective and also weakened his heart. He was uncertain whether he desired to continue working—or living—after this last masterpiece. His wife suggested a vacation to the healing climate of the Mediterranean, and he journeyed to the Isle of Ischia (which bears a resemblance to the created landscapes of these paintings). “You will see me again in Florence either healthy or not at all,” he warned his wife. Though he would not find healing there, he did perhaps find renewed inspiration; upon his return, he completed Ruin by the Sea and went on to paint not only several more versions of Isle of the Dead, but also another sister composition, The Isle of Life (1888, Kunstmuseum Basel). He would paint for another two decades before dying of tuberculosis (which often claims those with weakened immune systems).
EUROPEAN SCULPTURE, ROOM 218
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Severe rheumatoid arthritis, wheelchair user
This relief sculpture, The Judgement of Paris (1914), was completed at a time when Renoir’s hand and legs were severely crippled by arthritis. In order to complete the physically-demanding work of bronze casting, he collaborated with able-bodied artist Ricard Guinó. Based on Renoir’s significant disability, it’s likely that Renoir developed the drawings and plans, while Guinó did the clay moldings and oversaw casting.
Renoir continued painting for 25 years as his disability progressed. He invented adaptive solutions to enable himself to continue working. For instance, he would wrap his hand tightly with bandages then have a studio assistant slide the desired brushes into his grip. He also commissioned the invention of an easel with wheels and a positionable palette holder, such that (with the aid of an assistant) he could work on any part of a painting without standing or moving.
Renoir’s later work, including this sculpture, highlight the significance (and validity) of access to medical aides, studio assistants, and creative collaboration in the work of physically disabled artists.
(Two Renoir paintings that pre-date his disability are on view in Room 222.)
Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)
Learning disability, extreme myopia
Rodin’s entry into art was a direct result of difficulties in education. His academic development was so delayed that by age 14 he was still learning basic reading and writing (and struggling with math); he’d been labelled an “idiot” by his family. This was before our current understanding of developmental delays or learning disabilities, but it’s widely accepted today that the root cause was dyslexia. (Alternate explanations include an attention deficit disorder or autism, either one of which might have contributed to his obsessive interest in art.) Luckily for the world, his parents decided to embrace his interests and sent him to an arts trade school for three years. After his applications to higher arts education were repeatedly rejected, he worked as a craftsman for many years while continuing his sculptural training on and off with various mentors. There is a sort of delicious irony in the fact that reference to Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker (at the CMA’s SE South Entrance) is often used in popular culture to celebrate academic achievement, when it owes its creation to a boy’s inability to read.
Rodin’s tactile working style and interest in surface may have also been influenced by his extreme myopia (nearsightedness). This was at least the opinion of author Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived with Rodin for some time and wrote, “His myopia was destined to have the most vital influence on his art.”
20th CENTURY AVANT-GARDE, ROOM 223
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Dyslexic, likely mental illness
Picasso was diagnosed at a young age with “reading blindness”—the medical precursor to dyslexia—and had a lifelong difficulty with reading. Historians also speculate he may have had depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia based on his biography and how the changes in his working style parallel the visual changes seen in the work of diagnosed schizophrenics.
Picasso’s style evolved into a signature abstraction that often involved portraying subjects from multiple angles/moments in time simultaneously, such as in Bottle, Glass, Fork (1911-1912). The CMA describes it as expressing the “anxiety and uncertainty of the spirit of the modern age,” but it also reflects a uniquely dyslexic way of seeing. It’s a common misunderstanding that dyslexia is only the reversing of letters or words. Many dyslexics also see words/letters and shapes duplicated and partially overlapping, much as Picasso’s marks overlap, rotate, and reverse in the portrayal of this still life. With dyslexia, lines and spaces may appear to intersect and jumble—profoundly impacting an artist’s understanding of how mark-making can and should work.
The use of partial or ambiguous letters in his work is a trait he shares with another dyslexic painter, Robert Rauschenberg (Room 229A).
GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM & SURREALISM, ROOM 225
Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978)
Chronic physical illness, neurodivergence with hallucinations
In addition to having a chronic gut-related illness (potentially Crohn’s or IBS), de Chirico had some form of neurodiversity accompanied by hallucinations. Scholars are split on whether this may have been epilepsy or another condition. Chirico’s work was highly influential to other surrealists, in part, because of the way that unearthly subject matter appeared to him as concrete (whereas those without such direct experience of the unreal might struggle to visualize it). However, this popularity is itself responsible for the complicated attribution of the painting here: Metaphysical Interior (c1917-1939).
The first exhibit to show this piece now appears to have never taken place. Art historians are divided on the proper attribution of this painting; although it is signed “Chirico,” there are claims that it’s a forgery by another surrealist, Max Ernst (who, in addition to being famous in his own right, is known to have made other tributes to/forgeries of de Chirico’s work), or potentially by Óscar Domínquez.
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, ROOM 227
Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
Pollock’s status as a bipolar artist is relatively well-known and frequently discussed in relationship to his biography. However, one particular element of his mature style—as shown here in Number 5, 1950 (1950)—bears a special relevance to disability as it was developed as part of his art therapy treatment.
In the 1940s, Pollock was in therapy with Dr. J. Henderson, a Jungian psychologist who encouraged art as a form of self-discovery. Pollock’s early drawings contained obvious representational elements. As his therapy increasingly utilized Janusian theory, which teaches the possibility of holding multiple opposite ideas simultaneously while valuing each as equally true. Using this approach in his personal life increased Pollock’s daily functionality while honoring his mental illness. It also led to an artistic breakthrough. The sketches for his first true abstract expressionist work were created for his therapy sessions. Even the idea of a work being both truly abstract and a meaningful expression is an homage to the idea of dual, coexisting truths—an idea that springs directly from psychology used in Pollock’s treatment.
CONTEMPORARY, ROOM 229A
Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008)
Rauschenberg’s work and his discussion thereof present an early example of what is now called disability poetics. He was highly educated about his own disability and regularly brought up its significance to his work. He used this disability to his advantage in his studio practice, and his work both expressed the unique experiences he had as a dyslexic gay man and also dealt with the nuances of his disability in a metaphoric and transformative way. The work here, Gloria (1956), is an excellent example of that practice.
This work is typical of the way Rauschenberg plays with directionality. His texts are often ambiguous: scrambled, rotated, inversed, duplicated, mirrored, overlapped, or otherwise obscured. It’s possible to read most of his text-based work, but effort is required—and that effort is part of the point. Dyslexia was an identity he embraced, both for the innovative way it allowed him to see and for its positive impact on his work. In his own words: “Probably the only reason I’m a painter is because I couldn’t read… [being] dyslexic, I already see things backwards! You see in printmaking everything comes out backwards, so printing is an absolute natural for me.”
Andy Warhol (1928–1987)
Childhood chronic illness, neurodivergence
As a child, Warhol was affected by Sydenham’s chorea (historically called St. Vitus’ Dance), a chronic illness causing minor seizures and involuntary rapid movements of the hands, feet, and face. While on bedrest, he became obsessed with drawing as a form of expression.
Childhood chorea left lifelong traces, including recurrent spasms, premature balding, and patchwork variations in skin color. Warhol’s signature appearance—silver wig and pale makeup—was a direct adaptation to this disability. As an adult, his behavior was marked by clear neurodivergence; chorea is linked to traits from the obsessive-compulsive and autistic spectrums, but it’s impossible to say whether Warhol’s neurodivergence was inborn or acquired.
Either way, he was inarguably dyslexic and had great difficulty in writing and reading without aid, whether from ghostwriters or technology. Some scholars have suggested that his neurodivergence was autism, due to his aversion to being touched, extreme commitment to routine, communication difficulties, face-blindness, and “obsession with the uniformity of consumer goods.” His obsessive collections of items overflowed his home and often featured repetition (such as his twenty cats named “Sam”).
Much of Warhol’s work can be understood in the context of his disability. The famous Marilyn x 100 (1962), featured here, may break with art historical tradition but is in line with neurodivergent traditions of repetition and routine—repeating the same drawing or figure until one has exhausted it. Warhol’s Mick Jagger (1975, viewable online) reflects meaningfully on ways of dyslexic seeing: the overlapping, repeated forms don’t perfectly align yet are to be understood as a single figure. The often-jagged line work also shows continued motor skill challenges, to which he publicly attributed the origin of his integration of printing with painting.
Like many disabled people (especially those of us who are also queer), Warhol’s experiences with bias in the medical profession left him with an intense mistrust and fear of doctors. His unwillingness to get medical attention led to delayed treatment for his gallbladder issues until emergency surgery was required. The surgery itself was successful, but his fears proved well founded—he died in the hospital shortly thereafter as the victim of medical malpractice (for which the hospital settled out of court).
CONTEMPORARY, ROOM 229B
Agnes Martin (1912–2004)
Schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder
This is a good place to end our tour not only because we’ve reached the contemporary room, but also because of Martin’s own story and the way that closeting and privacy interacted with fame in her life. Martin was diagnosed as schizophrenic and had obsessive-compulsive disorder. She was also a lesbian, and reached fame at a time when that too was listed as a mental illness. Before moving to New York City and making connections with the Abstract Expressionist community, she’d painted for years in obscurity (a fate not uncommon for disabled queer artists). Yet once there, she became one of the only financially successful women within either Abstract Expressionism or Minimalist painting. The work shown here, The City (1966), isn’t exactly that of an outsider artist—she reached fame by working as a canny professional within the fine art scene of NYC. Part of this professionalism was an instinct to remain intensely private about her diagnosis and sexual orientation, knowing that public knowledge of either could be a threat. It wasn’t until she died in 2004 that the secrets about her lifelong mental illness began to emerge.
CMA describes her gridded paint as “purified of all nonessential elements.” That purity is not just abstraction or expression, though. It’s also part of a self-ordering process. Many schizophrenics talk about using repetitive or clearly defined, active behaviors (such as drumming, exercising…or painting) as a way to create order amongst disordered thoughts. Martin’s grids and meticulously-marked patterns are in clear dialog with the work of her modernist peers, but is in equally-clear dialog with the drawings of contemporary untrained artists with OCD and schizophrenia. These are not only a “minimalist vocabulary” but also a way to embrace her obsession and use it to create external order and internal peace. The grids are almost alchemy, a shape or action to transform chaos to stillness. It would be a mistake to confuse her craftsmanship with simple psychosis, however. She is making a conscious choice, maybe even a dangerous choice, to share these intimate internal landscapes with a neurotypical public. In doing so, she gives the audience a profound gift: the ability to see this alchemy at work and maybe even inhabit its stillness. In this respect, the CMA description is particularly apt: “Within these limited compositional elements, Martin achieves a quiet, private poetry.”
Here we end the tour, in silent consideration.
As you leave the galleries, do not assume that artists not listed here are necessarily able-bodied or neurotypical. Disability has often been stigmatized as a weakness, even though (as this tour has shown) it has often been a paradoxical source of creative inspiration and energy for artists.
This guide explores disability aesthetics through the Cleveland Museum of Art. Take this tour in person or virtually using the ArtLens app—or make your museum visit interactive with the ArtLens experience. Search the tours in ArtLens for “CAN Disability Aesthetics Tour.”
This is the third article in a series about disability and art in Cleveland, made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council ADAP program. If you are—or want to recommend—a Cleveland-area artist identifying as disabled (physically or mentally), d/Deaf, blind/low-vision, or neurodivergent, please get in touch with us! CripplepunkArt@gmail.com.