Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021

The top row shows three Degas paintings done between 1885 and 1910; the bottom row shows the same paintings blurred to Degas' quality of eyesight when he painted them.

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Ocular disease and its effect on art

Part one: the eyes of Monet, Cassatt, Degas and O'Keeffe

“Monet is only an eye,” painter Paul Cézanne said famously, “but what an eye!”

Towards the end of his life, Claude Monet’s luminous canvases took on a somber, muddied look. Was the Impressionist master turning into an Expressionist? Was he, perhaps, infusing his work with the cynicism and the woes of old age by darkening his palette? Zealous fans have balked at the idea that the colours in these works might have been determined by something other than pure inspiration, but among ophthalmologists, the evidence speaks for itself: by his 70s, Monet’s bilateral cataracts had become browner than the muddy water on the bottom of the Seine.

Monet’s progressive inability to distinguish between blues and greens is well documented. Writing of it himself post-cataract surgery, when the cat was out of the bag, he admits his despair: “I no longer perceived colors with the same intensity, I no longer painted light with the same accuracy. Reds appeared muddy to me, pinks insipid, and the intermediate or lower tones escaped me. What I painted was more and more dark, more and more like an ‘old picture,’ and when the attempt was over and I compared it to former works, I would be seized by a frantic rage and slash all my canvases with a pen knife.”

Fear of the knife

In spite of this violent frustration, he was terrified to face the scalpel and postponed surgery for years. Cataract removal was not a new procedure — the first documented surgical removal of a cataract from the eye occurred in Paris more than a century earlier — but one of his colleagues, ex-pat American painter Mary Cassatt, was not one of the procedure’s success stories.

Cassatt, well loved for her depictions of women and children in a simple style influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, began to lose her sight to cataracts in 1900, when she was 56. By 1910, she had given up printmaking, which required a level of detail she couldn’t muster. Assessing the toll that the artistic life had on the rest of her colleagues, she proclaimed, “Nothing takes it out of one like painting. I have only to look around me to see that, to see Degas a mere wreck, and Renoir and Monet, too.” By this time, Degas had joined Monet in the descent into blindness, and Renoir had such bad arthritis that paintbrushes had to be forced into his gnarled hand by assistants.

Radium inhalation therapy, all the rage in the early 1900s, didn’t seem fix Cassatt’s sight, so, in 1917, she agreed to cataract surgery in her right eye. It didn’t work, in fact, her vision worsened, in part due to a subsequent opacity of the posterior lens capsule in the same eye. Anticipating the forthcoming operation on her left eye, she wrote, “I look forward with horror to utter darkness and then an operation which may end in as great a failure as the last one.” Sadly, she was right. After a 1919 operation on her left eye, she never painted again.

Monet must have had a convincing eye doctor, because in 1923 he agreed to cataract surgery in one eye. Success! Suddenly, the world was returned to him. Blues, greens, pinks and purples flooded back into his “blue” eye while his other eye continued to perceive yellowed tones. He began to paint with new fervor, completing some of his best-known paintings in the three following years before his death. Legend has it that he may even have acquired a form of ultra-violet super-vision. A documented case of a retired Air Force officer who underwent cataract surgery in 2011 and wound up able to perceive the low end of the visible light spectrum suggests that there could be a grain of truth in the story. Post-operative, the Impressionist master is said to have visited his paintings where they hung in museum collections and obsessively tried to “correct” the colours when no one was watching.

Monet clearly thought that poor vision compromised his work. His colleague, Edgar Degas, was not so sure. He first noticed eye problems at age 36 when he was stationed as a national guardsman in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, perceiving a blind spot in his right eye when he tried to aim a rifle. By 1890, his retinal disease — probably macular degeneration — had begun to deteriorate the vision in his left eye as well.

The mind’s eye

Art historians have observed the decline in the level of detail in Degas’ images as his vision worsened, as well as an increased coarseness to his brush strokes. His work would have appeared differently to him than it does to those with good vision, they say — strokes would have been blurred and smoothed. And they cite his gradually building preference for oil pastels and sculpture as evidence that oil paint had become too hard for him to handle. But the visual challenges Degas faced did not necessarily compromise the power of his work, some critics insist.

“What his draftsmanship lost in fullness of realistic description and refinement of execution it gained in grandeur and expression,” says Columbia University art historian Theodore F. Reff. And while Pierre-August Renoir commenting on the state of Degas’ vision, proclaimed after the death of his friend in 1917, “It is fortunate for him …any conceivable death is better than living the way he was,” Degas himself took a more philosophic approach to his near-blindness — “I am convinced that these differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It’s false, and it is that falsity that constitutes art,” he said of his failing sight.

The beautiful “falsity” made possible by these great pioneers of vision who had to contend with changing eyesight in the course of their lives literally changed the way subsequent generations perceived the world. These painters were the first to actively identify an inner sight, a longing to convey beauty beyond the confines of what had been considered literal perception. By loosening the adherence to “correct” colours and allowing lines to blur and merge, they opened the door to an artistic hunger for new visions which gave birth to Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and the rest of art history as we know it. Degas’s acceptance of his ocular eccentricities, then, were perhaps an acknowledgment of the insignificance of the eye in the service of inner sight, a monumental proclamation in his time.

O’Keeffe’s infirmity

Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe might have agreed. She too suffered from macular degeneration and was discouraged by her failing sight. In 1972, she completed her last unassisted oil painting, The Beyond. A year later, a young potter named Juan Hamilton knocked on her door looking for a job. He became her closest friend, teaching her to work with clay and infusing her creative practice with new life. In 1977, at age 90, she observed, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” Though she was almost blind, she began to paint again, with assistance, using abstract watercolour forms that activated the page from edge to edge and as she continued to realize her lifelong goal to “fill space in a beautiful way.” Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon is one such work, powerful in its simplicity.

Stay tuned for part two: Was Van Gogh colour blind?

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