Ophthalmology and Art

One may wonder what ophthalmologist has to do with art? For painters who “paint what they see” their eyes are their window to the world, and any significant change in vision affect their portrayal of the world.  Ophthalmologist Michael Marmor of Stardford University recreated images that would show how artists with eye disease actually saw their world and their canvases.

Artistic excellences of El Greco, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir have roots in the wondrous organization of their vision within the eye and the brain. They all scaled heights of artistic vision while facing a decline of ocular vision. Monet and Degas experienced vision change (nearly blind) that had profoundly effect on their work, in other artists vision change affect was less.

Base on the framework of book The Eye of the Artists, ophthalmologist Michael Marmor chose to focus on French impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, their artistic style were well formed before their eye disease affected their vision. Both continued to work while they struggled with retinal disease and cataracts, and both were very close to blindness. Their suffering from eye disease was well documented in historical records and medical journals.

To create the images of the artists’ paintings as seen through their own eyes, Marmor used Adobe Photoshop, he adjusted the blur and filter settings to what he determined would be the different stages of Degas and Monet eye diseases, based on medical expertise and historical research. Marmor’s studio cum lab was the union of art and science, he says – An artist’s eye is a tool of empathy. I thought it was important to actually see what the artist saw. Impressionist artists used light to create contrast, to describe what they saw. And when they could no longer see well, when light was no longer reaching the retina in the same way, the messages were wrongly coded, and their painting changed.

Edger Degas (1834 – 1917) at age of 36 found bright light intolerable and was forced to work indoors in a controlled environment. The theatre was conducive to his glare problems and his paintings of the ballet and the opera remain his most famous works. By age 39, he had bitterly accepted his visual difficulties. He believed blindness was imminent. He wrote – “My eyes are fairly well but all the same I shall remain in the ranks of the infirm until I pass into the rank of the blind. Sometime I feel a shiver of horror”  (letter to James Tissot, 1873, Paris). By his 40s, Dedas developed a loss of central vision; painting became even more difficult, later he had problems identifying colors. His vision became progressively worse, and by the 1891, at age 57, he could no longer read. He writes –  “I see even worse this winter. I do not even read the newspapers a little, my maid reads to me during lunch. Ah! Sight! Sight! ……. the difficulty of seeing makes feel numb” (letter to Evariste de Valernes, 1891, Paris). As his eyes worsened he changed media from oil to pastel, difficulties in color differentiation may have contributed to the bold coloration of his late works. A decline in contrast sensitivity and acuity is demonstrated in the progressively wider strokes evident in his later works.  Compare the oil painting when Degas was 31, to the pastel created at age 56. The fine detail in “A Women with Chrysanthemums” is absent from “Two Dancers”, in the latter the range of color is limited, and strokes are loose and wide. 

Degas completed the pastel titled “Woman Combing Her Hair” in 1886 and “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself” in 1889. During the late 1880s, he first began to talk about his infirmity of sight. By the time Degas completed “Woman Drying Her Hair” in 1905 his eyesight had fallen between 20/200 and 20/400. After 1900, there was virtually no detailing of faces or clothing in Degas’ artwork.    

  Image A (top left): “Woman Combing Her Hair” (1886) Image B (top middle):
“After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself” (1889) Image C (top right):
“Woman Drying Her Hai r” (1905). 
Marmor recreated the same three paintings D-F (bottom left to right) 
in computer of
visual acuity at 20/50, 20/200 and then 20/400
to replicate what Degas might have
as they would have appeared to Degas as his eye disease progressed

Degas’ retinopathy also accounted for his move into sculpture, printmaking and photography. He never specifically described the impact of his vision on his art, but one refute that his changing vision almost certainly played a significant role. 

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was contemporary to Degas. Monet’s exquisite sensitivity to light, color, and detail was central to his work. For Monet, 1912-1922 was a watershed decade, as he aged he suffered from nuclear cataracts in both eyes. Nuclear cataracts absorb light, de-saturate colors, and make the world appear more yellow and blur.  Paintings of water lilies and willows over the period 1918-1922 as Monet entered his eighties exemplify the change. Tones became muddier and darker, forms became less distinct and flowed into one another as his contrast sensitivity declined, his works lost subtlety, brush strokes became bolder, and colors strikingly blue, orange or brown.


Left image is Monet’s painting of Japanese bridge in his Giverny garden near Paris in 1899.
The same scene (middle), which he attempted to capture again between 1918 and 1924, shows
that cataracts had blurred his vision and that the yellowing of his eye lenses had impaired his
perception of blue and green, leaving him in a world filled with murky reds and browns.
Marmor recreated the image (right) the way Monet might have seen while re-painting it
between 1918 and 1924 –   blurring vision and turning patterns of colors and
light into muddy, unfocused, yellow-green inkblots.

Monet experienced problems with glare that made working outside difficult. With time Monet’ eyesight worsened so much that he painted from memory. He memorizing where the colors were placed on his palette and at times kept a regular order of color on his palette. In a letter to his friend he acknowledged that he was – “Trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and to the force of habit, to paint.”  Monet adamantly refused to have his eyes operated and struggled mightily as he looked out into the murky yellow-brown garden and tried to decide what subtle impression to create on canvas. Monet was frustrated with deterioration of his vision, he wrote to Marc Elder in 1922 – “In the end I was forced to recognize that I was spoiling them (painting), that I was no longer capable of doing anything good. So I destroyed several of my panels. Now I’m almost blind and I having to abandon work altogether. It’s hard but that’s the way it is.”  In 1923, Monet reluctantly submitted to cataract surgery in one eye.  After surgery Monet used spectacles specialized for cataracts, he was somewhat happy to read, continue his correspondence and paint till his death in 1926.

Retinal disease of Degas and Monet doesn’t make them any less interesting from our standpoint as viewers or from an art historical standpoint. Is not to argue whether their later works are aesthetically “better” or “worse” than their earlier paintings or how much they were trying to change their style. Some of Degas’ and Monet’s greatness as an artist is attributable to their visual loss along with their  much illuminated body of their artwork.

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