“Mourning Gaston” (1928), a lesser-known Matisse work dedicated to Petit
When a 7-year-old French boy named Gaston Petit had both arms amputated at the elbow following a gangrene epidemic in his native Avignon, doctors told him he would never kayak again. “What is this…kayaking?” the boy famously asked. The doctors quickly realized they’d confused him with a champion kayaker who had died of the Dutch Tremors that afternoon in the bed next to Petit, and attempted to set things right. “Never mind,” they said, but the wheels had been set in motion.
Petit, stubborn and willful, vowed that he would never be limited by his disability, and immediately petitioned his parents to buy him a kayak. They did so only grudgingly, fearing for their son’s safety, and at first would let him ride only in the kiddie pool at the Avignon Sporting Club, where his kayak would bang into the walls before it could travel more than a few feet.
It was slow going for Petit, who couldn’t envision a way to row the vessel without his arms. He tried strapping the oars to his biceps, but found the process cumbersome and ineffective. For six months, he attempted to perfect the art of rowing with the end of each oar stuck in his mouth, suffering several broken teeth and a fractured jaw for his troubles. Finally, in a fit of anger, he screamed out, “perhaps I should row with my feet!” As he sat brooding in the kiddie pool, the idea began to seem less and less incredible.
The next day, he found that if he stood on what remained of his arms inside the kayak, upside down, the stumps of his elbows gave him enough clearance to see out the front of the boat. A day later, he devised a system for attaching the oars to his legs, and within two weeks he had invented a method of rowing that involved peddling his legs as though he was riding a bicycle.
Over the next 15 years, he began to perfect what became known as the Petit Method. Steering proved a difficult obstacle, but he overcame it as his legs became more dexterous and flexible through practice and a daily yoga regimen. It took three years before he could stand on his elbows for more than two minutes before his bicep and shoulder muscles gave out, but this too improved with time. Finally, unthinkably, he gained enough skill to compete in local championships, where he was often mocked and called names like “The Handless Oarsman” (a play on “The Headless Horseman” that sounds even more biting in French). But Petit was nothing if not resilient, and soon he was accumulating trophies across southern France. By age 20, he was the national champion.
When the Stockholm games of 1912 rolled around, Petit was already a French legend, and hoped to add to his glory with an Olympic medal. His campaign was almost derailed when an official protest from the German delegation alleged that by using his legs to row, he had a strength advantage over the other competitors. This was overturned at the last moment when it was discovered that nobody liked the Germans, and on the day of the event, Petit navigated the course with aplomb, finishing in third place and taking home the bronze medal.
After a hero’s welcome back in France, Petit spent the next decade giving speeches to French youth and serving as a spokesman for the Societe du Victimes Gangrenes. He even tried acting, starring as the lead in the short-lived biographical stage play “What is this…kayaking?” He took a wife and had five children, one of whom, Cecile, became the grandmother of French Open champion Yannick Noah and great-grandmother of American basketball star Joakim Noah.
But tragedy struck for Petit in 1927, when he attempted to use the Petit Method in a charity boxing match and was accidentally punched in the testicles by radio personality Francoise “Gigi” Levesque. Petit went into shock and was pronounced dead that evening. A year later, his legend was immortalized by the great painter Henri Matisse in “Mourning Gaston,” and his bronze medal still hangs in the Louvre Museum.