It was a rare event in the long history of the Louvre. In August of 1909, one special guest and his entourage were being allowed to visit the museum during the hours it was closed to the public. Rendered virtually immobile by rheumatoid arthritis and looking older than his 78 years, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was as frail and gaunt as “a monk from the Italian Renaissance.” Barely 105 pounds in weight, his fingers curled into his palms, and his dry, taut skin had the appearance of leather. But his eyes sparkled with joy and excitement at the prospect of seeing one of his paintings — a portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier — added to the museum’s world-famous collection.
A homemade sedan chair — two long bamboo poles strapped to an ordinary, well-padded wicker chair — had been created to allow him the chance to enter the museum and tour its galleries as comfortably as possible. Two men grasped the poles between the chair and carried their easy burden through the entrance as the rest of the entourage followed. Almost as momentous as this rare, private showing was the fact that the Louvre was about to add a painting by an Impressionist to their collection of iconic masterpieces.
For decades the output of the Impressionist artists had been ridiculed by French art critics and spurned by French museum curators. Now one of the most famous and beloved of all of the Impressionists found himself being acclaimed as a master by the pinnacle of the French artistic establishment. The “cork in the stream of life” — as he liked to call himself — had made a long, colorful journey and had now landed safely on hallowed ground.
The cork began his journey on Feb. 25, 1841 in Limoges, France. There was nothing about his birth, childhood, or young adulthood to foreshadow the physical difficulties and discomfort he would experience in the last 20 years of his life. The sixth of seven children, young Auguste — as he was called — was destined for a comfortable, but unremarkable