What The Great Artists Saw
Image by katsrcool.
The vibrant colours of ‘Water Lilies’ by Claude Monet, and the diaphanous tutus in ‘The Dance Class’ painted by Edgar Degas, are two famous examples of French impressionism. But did you know that both Degas and Monet painted with degenerative eye conditions? Michael Marmor, an Opthamologist from Stanford University, made it his mission to show the famous works through the artists own eyes.
Marmor simulated what the paintings would have looked like to the artists, by using Photoshop and various colour, contrast and sharpness filters. The simulations make us question whether or not the artists intended their paintings to look the way they do. In their later years, they weren’t painting in this way for artistic reasons, they were instead guided by their own vision challenges.
Claude Monet’s World
Monet created sharper works with a greater contrast in his youth, when he could see normally. In 1861 he painted ‘Corner of the Studio’, a still life that was rendered with a great attention to detail.
Ironically, it would be his paintings when he was under the influence of cataracts, that would garner the most praise and recognition. During the years of 1897 to 1899, he arranged himself at the bank of a pond close to his house in Giverny. Here, he created a legendary series of 250 paintings called ‘Nympheas’. They show a superb usage of colour and a softness. When adjusted for the symptoms of cataracts using Photoshop, the colours are zapped of intensity and become dark and muddied. It’s known from his letter writing to friends, that he relied on the labels of tubes rather than his eyes in later years.
Cataracts blurs vision as well as darkens the colours and makes them appear yellow-tinged. So poor Monet would have struggled mightily with his condition. He underwent cataract surgery in 1923, but his sense of colour was destroyed. This is demonstrated by his garish, chaotic, yellow-brown approach to his final painting before he died in 1926 at the age of 86, ‘the Japanese Bridge’
Edgar Degas’ World
Degas is one of the inspirational pioneers of the Impressionist movement. He loved drawing bodies in the throes of activity: ballet dancers in mid-pirouette and horses at the racetrack.
He enlisted in the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was there, during rifle practice that he learnt his eyesight was defective, and that he suffered from a retinal disease similar to diabetic retinopathy. He grew deeply worried about his future as an artist. In 1874 he painted ‘Ballet Rehearsal On The Set’, when he still had relatively good eye sight.
As his illness progressed from 1880 onwards, his paintings grew increasingly rough, with contrast getting less defined and blurriness increasing. The careful shading on the folds of ballet tutus and faces gave way to less defined lines in his later years. His later paintings of nudes, like this one below from 1910, were be so blurry that it appears they were drawn under water.
It’s a testament to Degas’ and Monet’s determination and love for art that they continued to paint despite their eyes. Perhaps the Impressionist movement has more to do with eye diseases than anybody ever imagined?
There is a reluctance in the art world to consider the influence of degenerative eye conditions on great works of art. Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keefe also created their great works, when they were influenced by chronic eye diseases. Focussing on psychological or historical influences, and not considering how the artists saw their work – is to ignore the facts completely.
Athena blogs about lifestyle, art and health for www.directsight.co.uk.
September 18, 2012