We can never imagine a world without vision. Whether one works as a realist painter or abstract artist, the quality of our vision determines the ultimate appearance of the art that we make. As viewers of art, we can rarely know or consider if the art we are looking at is meant to be expressive of a particular style, or was produced by an artist with a vision problem or perhaps super-vision. Why would we? We can never see through another person’s eyes, only the resulting expressions of their vision, good or bad.
|The Rose-Way in Giverny by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1920-22.|
Readers of The Artist’s Road know that we are always interested in the science of vision and the brain, so when we found the 2009 book by Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin titled The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art, we had to share some of their fascinating research with you. Much has been written about the late oil paintings of some of the Impressionists, especially Degas and Monet, ascribing their increasingly gestural and dark paint-work to an intentional advancement into painterly abstraction, while waving off the evidence that both these artists had serious eye diseases that were progressing.
Degas had fewer problems than Monet, but his macular degeneration caused him to gradually lose sharpness of detail. This did not affect his colors, but as time went by, his lack of sharp vision led to his figures and portrait paintings becoming more impressionistic and his strokes coarser. Eventually, he could not make out facial features at all. By the turn of the century, Degas’ visual acuity had fallen into the range of 20/200 to 20/400. This means that something 20 feet away appeared to him with the sharpness of an object 200 to 400 feet away.
By 1922, Monet’s acuity had also fallen to 20/200 in his good eye, but he also had cataracts, of which he complained publicly. As the cataracts worsened, he could not perceive colors or values well, and his increasingly yellow-brown lenses led him to try to compensate by using ever more intense blues and reds. Finally, he resorted to reading the colors off the tubes and painting out of habit. He destroyed many of these paintings in frustration.
|Nympheas reflets de saule
by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1916-19.
It is interesting to realize that if he was pleased by what he saw, then we (with normal vision) are not seeing what he intended. Although cataract surgery became available in the early 1900s, it was not reliable and did not always work. Monet delayed having surgery, perhaps put off by the unsuccessful surgeries of Mary Cassatt, who stopped painting after the second failed surgery blinded her. By 1923, Monet had one eye corrected, and his colors and detail came vividly back to life, allowing him to complete the large waterlilies for the Orangerie Museum installation.
How fortunate we are to live in a time when many of the eye diseases that plagued artists are more easily treatable and sometimes even reversed. In a real sense, advances in medical science walk hand-in-hand with advances in art, allowing mature artists to remain productive throughout their lives.
Please join us on The Artist’s Road for more interesting and informative articles.
–John and Ann