Art Daily reported on November 5 that 330 Old Master drawings were added to Harvard Art Museum’s acclaimed collection of Dutch Golden Age works on paper. The cache was a gift from Harvard grad of 1954 George Abrams. Given the university’s existing holding of this period in history, the trove transformed the museum’s treasures into the most comprehensive outside Europe.

Making art the hard way

All the heavy hitters are in this lineup of these Dutch masters, including Rembrandt van Rijn and Adraen van Ostade. But a seldom noted backstory about one of the other 235 artists in the lot – Henrick Goltzius - creates a picture of a different kind.

His is a tale that is personal for several accomplished painters and sculptors. I’m talking about disabilities and the way afflicted art-makers have risen above their limitations and reached great heights.

Looks aren’t everything

In Goltzius’s case, his right hand, the one he used for drawing, was deformed from a bad burn in infancy. It never developed normally and he shows you in a 1588 work titled “The Artist’s Right Hand.” How well did Goltzius draw with his malformed hand? Art historian Alpheus Hyatt Mayor, former curator at the Met, touted Goltzius in his 1971 treatise Prints and People, saying, the artists “was the last professional engraver who drew with the authority of a good painter and the last who invented many pictures for others to copy.”

Profiles in courage

At times, probably everyone is challenged in one way or another - some more than others.

But there are those who seem to function exceptionally well against all odds, like theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who endures ALS that gradually paralyzed him, leaving him now down to one cheek muscle, which links to a machine that generates speech. And while every school kid probably knows his tale, few may know the unsung accounts of artists with physical problems who also triumph over them.

When there’s a will, there’s a way

Coming to mind is Michelangelo who had osteoarthritis which caused him crippling pain in his hands. You wouldn’t know that to look at his sculpture of “David” or his paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Then there’s Spain’s master portraitist Francisco Goya whose illness was neurological, a consequence of syphilis.

Vision disturbances, dizziness and headaches plagued him, not to mention mobility problems with his right arm – the one he used for painting - but he kept on working.

Flying high

So did Frida Kahlo, who contracted polio as a child that disfigured one of her legs. She was further damaged as a teenager in a trolley accident that broke her back, which never properly healed. She’s famed for her life-assertive self-portraits, rendered either from a wheelchair or from her bed. “Feet, why do I need them if I have wings to fly?” Kahlo’s self-portraits in a wheelchair, like Goltzius’ drawing of his misshapen hand, shows pride in their can-do spirit.

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