Aimée Rapin and Stepan Elmas

Overcoming Handicaps: Story of Aimée Rapin and Stepan Elmas


The name of the Swiss artist Aimée Rapin is unfamiliar to the general public. Yet her name deserves to be known for a number of reasons: first of all, as an artist in general and secondly, and this is the most unusual and stupendous fact about her, as an artist, be they male or female, who drew with her toes as she did not have arms.

Her works included portraits of children and adults in, nude beauties and exquisite features that disclose the inner worlds of those captured on the canvas, as well as landscapes and still-lifes, especially flowers, eye-catching colorful images and masterly performed graphic works. It is hard to perceive that those highly artistic pieces and brilliant oil pastels were created not by hand.

Aimée Rapin painting

Aimée Rapin was born on February 14, 1868 in Payerne, Switzerland, one of 12 children. Only she had a physical handicap. Aimée’s father, Jules Rapin was an employment agent, as well as an amateur artist and musician. In 1872 the family moved to Lausanne where 6-year-old Aimée started taking painting classes with local university professor, M. Meyenbourg. The next year the family moved back to Payerne. Aimée was 18 when her father passed away in 1880. Her mother, Adelie Rapin-Quidort, who had happily married at 18 and became a widow at 38, had to bear the entire burden of supporting the large family on her own. She had to keep the house and bring up her children, one of whom needed special attention.

Aimée was far from conventional, however, and she demonstrated a strong will power from early childhood and was a very easy-going youngster. She resigned herself to her physical state with a great deal of good-humor. Gradually, she learnt to do with her toes everything others do with their hands, from from picking flowers to eating. She used to say that the only thing bothering her was the necessity to always wear a pelerine.

At 14 Aimée was sent to study at a boarding school in Lausanne. She continued with her drawing classes with her teacher, Meyerbourg. In 1884, Aimée Rapin moved to Geneva to live with her godmother Mrs. Kapt and to study at the Art School. Mrs. Kapt was a well-educated woman, a widow without children, so she accompanied her beloved Aimée in all of her tours around the world. The young girl was never to be stopped by any difficulties: she would travel with or without her godmother to Italy, Spain, Holland, even to Morocco and Tunisia.

At the Art School her teachers were Henri Héber (drawing), Huges Bovy (sculpture), and Elisée Mayor (ceramics). The greatest impression though was made on the young artist by eminent Swiss painter and draughtsman Barthélemy Menn, a friend of Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Georges Sand.

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Aimée received from Menn a number of incentive prizes and twice the first prize: one for sculpture and the other for the best portrait. “You are an innate portraitist,” Barthélemy Menn once told her.

In 1888, Aimée Rapin had a great success at the exhibition of Paris University. She started receiving orders from Paris and London. Despite the fact that she never organized a solo exhibition, Aimée gradually gained recognition and appreciation in Europe. The well-known French art critic Pierre Thee characterized Rapin’s style in painting as “Verlain-type.” The celebrated French actresses Réjane and Sarah Bernhardt wanted their portraits to be painted by Aimée.

Incidentally, an American impresario in Paris offered her $100,000 (at that time it was about half a million francs) to demonstrate her art in the major American theaters and draw paintings in 15-minute sessions. Naturally, an artist’s dignity did not allow Rapin to make a display of her physical imperfection and make a show out of her art…

In 1882, Rapin finally settled in Geneva. Her fine-looking studio was on the sixth floor at Necker Street 1. In 1896, Aimée Rapin received an order from the Swiss Confederation to create one of her best portraits, “The Watchmaker,” presently in the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle.

Every day Aimée would sit in front of the easel and work diligently with her right foot to create paintings, one better than the one before.

Her attractive face, good nature and great talent made many men fall in love with her, but Aimée preferred not to start a family. There was a man, however, that was present in her life with love and affection.

A portrait of Stephan Elmas by Aimée Rapin

In the year 1911 she met Armenian composer and pianist Stephan Elmas (Stepan Elmassian), her great love. Aimée was 43 at that time, and Elmas was 49.

A native of Smyrna, Stephan Elmas was born into a wealthy family and had traveled to Europe at 15 to take lessons with Franz Liszt. From 1888 to 1908, Elmas performed solo piano recitals in nearly all the big cities of Europe. He composed concertos, sonatas, romances, ballades, mazurkas and waltzes which were published in Paris and Leipzig. Many Europeans called him “the Armenian Chopin.” Unfortunately, Elmas caught typhoid in 1887 and went partially deaf. His health deteriorated substantially in 1915 when he learnt about the Armenian Genocide.

Perhaps it was the similarity in their destiny that bonded them – the fate of armless artist and that of a deaf musician. From 1914 they lived together in Gustave-Adore littoral area in Geneva. Stephan Elmas greatly contributed to promoting Aimée Rapin’s works, and the artist created several portraits of Armenian musician. In 1922, deeply impressed by the tragedy befallen on her beau’s people, Aimée Rapin produced her “Armenia the Martyr” canvas, as well as two portraits of Elmas’s mother, Yepraxi Elmas.

Stephan Elmas died in Geneva in 1937. On September 13 of the same year, Rapin wrote in her letter to Elmas’s biographer and friend, philologist Hagop-Krikor Djerdjerian: “A pair of eyes was closed forever for this world, and the world has been changed for me… Yet, wasn’t it the God’s blessing for me to have such a wonderful friend by my side for more than 26 years?”

Aimée Rapin was always a surprisingly strong, optimistic, cheerful and generous person with an incredible sense of humor. She was once at a party at the home of her brother, Ernst, who had seven children. She looked around with an adoring and delighted smile and uttered joyfully: “The more arms and hands in this family, the better!” The fact of her unusual state induced many tragic and in the same time, comical situations in Aimée’s lifetime. Thus, for instance, she once traveled in a train bound for Lausanne from Geneva and paying for her ticket, Aimée said the ticket seller that he can leave the ticket with him, as she cannot take it. On another occasion, a fire startedin the building where Aimée used to live, and the firefighters started taking people out of the windows with the help of a ladder. “Hold on to my neck,” the fireman said. “I cannot,” Aimée said. “Don’t be silly!” the fireman was got upset. “But I do not have arms,” Aimée said. And then the strong fireman put the woman on his shoulders and carried her down on his back.

Rapin’s works were exhibited in Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Montreal and New York City. She continued to work till the end of her life and passed away on May 8, 1956 in Geneva at the age of 88. She was buried in Geneva’s Plainpalais cemetery, next to Stephan Elmas’s grave.

Aimée Rapin worked diligently throughout her entire life and left for generations more than 3,000 unique pieces of art, kept nowadays at the Payerne Museum. In 1996, the museum published an illustrated book of her works, entitled Aimée Rapin, Painting Without Hands. The text is written by the artist’s niece, Simone Rapin, a poet and playwright.

The Yerevan public is gradually getting familiar with Stephan Elmas; Yerevan Conservatory has been hosting pianists’ contest in Elmas’s memory, and through the efforts of the French-Armenian conductor Alexander Siranossian, who is also the artistic director of the Stephan Elmas Foundation, the composer’s piano was transported to Armenia and donated to the Museum of Literature and Art in Yerevan. Elmas’ companion in life, Aimée Rapin deserves to be known among the Armenians too – a brave artist, whose life and art is truly a unique exemplar of strong will and exceptional bravery…


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