The Eyes Have It

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.
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.
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

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.