The setting is a room in a home. Stretched out--half lying, half sitting--an elderly man ("the paralytic") gazes passively at a plate of food that is being held out to him by a gentleman who stands, bending toward him. In contrast to the paralytic, who wears a brown house coat, the standing men is properly dressed, but has a cloth draped over his left arm and holds a utensil in his right hand. The paralytic's arms, slightly bent, extend limply over his body; one foot rests on a stool and his lower limbs are covered with a blanket.

Hovering around the invalid with all eyes turned in his direction are several women, children, and a dog. The only figure who is not looking at the patient is a boy who kneels at his side, with an arm placed gently on the man's leg. In his stretched out position, the paralyzed man occupies a large space at the center of the picture and dominates it. The viewer's attention is further drawn to this central figure by the lighting--the background is dark while the cushion against which the man rests is light and glistens, and the man's face is bathed in light. Hence the viewer participates with the family in focusing attention on the invalid.


Diderot, the French philosopher and critic, admired Greuze's work and influenced Catherine the Great of Russia to purchase this painting, as well as others by Greuze. Described as a "premature realist" (Hilton Kramer, The New York Observer, 6/26/02), Greuze often painted scenes of contemporary domestic life. This painting is one of a series of "moral" works, in which family stories of right behavior and/or conflict were depicted.

"The Paralytic" shows the concern and care offered to an invalid by his doting family, and locates the quasi-medical scene in the family home. It might be useful to compare this painting with current day hospital scenes such as George Tooker's Corporate Decision or with images of illness, caregivers, and hospital visitors in Robert Pope's Illness and Healing: Images of Cancer (see annotations in this database).


Painted 1763

Primary Source

The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg