I Paint with My Prick

Pierre-Auguste Renoir? Jean Renoir? Ōe Kenzaburō? Jeanette Winterson? D. H. Lawrence? Bernard Malamud? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The master painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir is my favorite Impressionist artist. For many years he has been credited with the following outrageous facetious quotation:

I paint with my prick.

Recently, I was surprised to discover that the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has placed this phrase in their Misquotations section. This important reference work presented the following phrase attributed to Renoir in 1919 and suggested that the quote above may have been inaccurately derived from it [OXPR]:

It’s with my brush that I make love

Could you explore the provenance of these phrases?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence connecting Pierre-Auguste Renoir to both of the quotes listed above. QI believes that the first quote is based on a conversational exchange that occurred between Renoir and a journalist that was witnessed by several individuals and reported by his son. In 1962 Jean Renoir, the prominent filmmaker and son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, published a biography of his father. An English translation was also released in 1962, and it contained the following significant passage about the elder Renoir [JRAR]:

Once, towards the end of his life, I heard him make the following rejoinder to a journalist who seemed to be astonished by his crippled hands:
“With such hands, how do you paint?” the man asked, crudely.
“With my prick,” replied Renoir, really vulgar for once.

It took place in the dining room at Les Collettes. There were a half-dozen or so visitors present. No one laughed at his quip. For what he said was a striking expression of the truth; one of those rare testimonies, so seldom expressed in the history of the world, to the miracle of the transformation of matter into spirit.

The quotation ascribed to Pierre-Auguste Renoir can be constructed by compressing the dialog of the journalist and the painter into a single direct statement. The elder Renoir died in 1919, so the episode described above occurred decades before the biography was released. However, there is additional evidence for the quotation that was published much earlier. The notorious 1928 erotic classic “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence contained the following passage in chapter four. The ellipsis appeared in the original text [CLDL]:

Renoir said he painted his pictures with his penis . . . he did too, lovely pictures! I wish I did something with mine.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1919 the painter Albert André published a book titled “Renoir” about his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the art works he created. The volume was written in French and included the following remark by Renoir. The ellipsis appeared in the original text [AAPR]:

« C’est avec mon pinceau que… j’aime », répondait-il, avec moins de solennité toutefois, aux curiosités égrillardes des visiteurs d’atelier.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Yale Book of Quotations provided the following translation for the quoted words [OXPR] [YQPR]:

It’s with my brush that I make love.

In 1928 D. H. Lawrence invoked a version of the saying under investigation and ascribed the words to Renoir in his taboo-breaking novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” as mentioned previously.

In 1929 a book of reproductions depicting the scandalous paintings of D. H. Lawrence was published. The introduction was written by Lawrence himself, and he referred to two remarks attributed to Renoir [CWDL]:

If a woman didn’t have buttocks and breasts, she wouldn’t be paintable, he said, and he was right. Ca fait du bien au corps! What do you paint with, Maitre—With my penis, and be damned! Renoir didn’t try to get away from the body. But he had to dodge it in some of its aspects, rob it of its natural terrors, its natural demonishness.

In 1962 Jean Renoir released a biography of his father that recounted a dialog between Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a news man that transpired sometime before 1919 [JRAR]:

“With such hands, how do you paint?” the man asked, crudely.
“With my prick,” replied Renoir, really vulgar for once.

In 1969 the noted author Bernard Malamud employed the most common modern version of saying in a linked collection of humorous short stories about an art student named Fidelman [PFBM]:

I paint with my prick. Renoir. I paint with my ulcer. Soutine. I paint with my paint. Fidelman.

In 1970 an article in the Journal of Aesthetic Education mentioned a version of the words ascribed to Renoir [AEPR]:

Renoir once said that “a painter who has the feel for breasts and buttocks is saved,” and it is recounted that when the master was asked with what he painted he replied, “With my penis and be damned!”

In 1986 a curiously similar comment was ascribed to another prominent artist named Oe Kenzaburo, a Japanese author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. The book “The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques” contained the following passage and footnote [OKMW]:

A foreign scholar of Japanese literature who was well known for her quips once said to him: “You look up words in a physiological dictionary instead of a language dictionary when you write novels, don’t you?” He replied humorously, “That’s correct. And I write with my genitals instead of a fountain pen!” [2]

[Footnote 2] “Eccentricity, Abnormality, and Danger in Sex” (Sei no kikaisa to ijo to kiken), Tightrope Walking, p. 239.

In 1992 the prize-winning British novelist Jeanette Winterson referenced the Renoir remark in her novel “Written on the Body” [WBJW]:

She said, ‘Don’t you know that Renoir claimed he painted with his penis?’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘He did. When he died they found nothing between his balls but an old brush.’
‘You’re making it up.’
Am I?

In a later section of the book Winterson ascribed a comparable statement to the well-known writer Henry Miller. QI has been unable to locate evidence to support this attribution and it is possible Winterson’s intention was jocular:

‘Do you know why Henry Miller said “I write with my prick”?’
‘Because he did. When he died they found nothing between his legs but a ball-point pen.’
‘You’re making it up,’ she said.
Am I?

In conclusion, when asked how he painted Renoir answered in French, “With my prick” according to his son. This reply was referred to in a published novel by 1928. So there is substantive support for the core of the quotation

[OXPR] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Misquotations, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed May 19, 2012)

[JRAR] 1962, “Renoir, My Father” by Jean Renoir, [English Translation of Renoir by Jean Renoir, Hachette, Paris, 1962], Translated by Randolph and Dorothy Weaver, Chapter 17, Quote Page 205-206, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (English text verified on paper in 1962 edition) (link to 2001 edition)

[CLDL] 1982, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, [Note inside book: Text from the third manuscript version, first published by Guiseppe Orioli, Florence, 1928] Page 77, Grove Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[AAPR] 1919, Renoir par Albert André, [Written in French], Quote Page 8, G. Crès, Paris. (HathiTrust full view) link link

[YQPR] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Page 633, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[CWDL 1998, Selected Critical Writings by D. H. Lawrence, Edited by Michael Herbert, [Text from “Introduction to These Paintings”; Chapter of “The Paintings of D. H. Lawrence”; Published in 1929 by Mandrake Press, London], Page 260, Oxford University Press, Oxford. (Questia)

[PFBM] 1969, Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition by Bernard Malamud, Page 161, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York. (Verified on paper)

[AEPR] 1970 July, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 4, Number 3, “Dirty Pictures and Campus Comity” by John Adkins Richardson, Start Page 85, Quote Page 89, Published by: University of Illinois Press. (JSTOR) link

[OKMW] 1986, “The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques” by Michiko N. Wilson, Page 22, An East Gate Book, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., New York. (Google Books preview) link

[WBJW] 1994, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, Page 22 and 60, Vintage International, Division of Random House, New York, [Originally published in 1992 by Jonathan Cape, London]. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside; Many thanks to Professor Laurence Horn for pointing out this citation)