The later years of Claude Monet and Edgar Degas were marked by failing vision and corresponding changes in the style of their paintings, creating an ambivalence about their later work among both their contemporaries and today’s critics.
Monet’s early and well-known paintings of water lilies are full of vibrant blue and purple tones, with clear and sharp lines. As his vision deteriorated, his portrayal of nature became more abstract, and increasingly infused with yellow and red tones.
Works of art, can show how it looks to see the world, as colors dull and vision blurs, when words fail to describe the experience of losing vision. In the late works of Claude Monet, you can see how cataracts affect his vision, resulting in landscapes suffused with a hazy, yellowish tint. Edgar Degas’ late paintings are marked by blurry undertones, likely the result of retinal disease.
Monet’s blurring of vision due to cataract was not an impediment to the organization of his pictures either, but the loss of color perception created a major problem. His goal in painting was to highlight variations among times of day, seasons, lighting and shadows.
These judgments became nearly impossible during the several years prior to his cataract surgery, after which he destroyed many later canvases. He could use memory from 50 years of experience as a painter to choose colors and to try to create an impressionistic aura.
However, we know that he took canvases outdoors when the lighting was favorable, so he must have felt that even distorted observations were still relevant.Degas had fewer problems than Monet, even though Degas’ visual acuity fell to lower levels. His main subject was the female form which was large relative to even poor levels of visual acuity so that his visual loss was not an impediment to planning the organization of his pictures. Degas had for many years used a limited number of colors in his works and these were often rather bright, so that even if his color perception was not entirely normal with his maculopathy, this was not a major impediment to his technique.
In an article in The Archives of Ophthalmology, Dr. Michael F. Marmor a Professor of ophthalmology at Stanford, used computer simulations to create images of what these artists might have seen as their vision declined. “Here we can see for ourselves what they were seeing through their eyes,” Dr. Marmor said. “Critics have known that these men had failing vision, but I don’t think they could appreciate what it meant to these artists. It gives both new respect for what they could do with limited vision, but also gives us reason to re-examine perhaps what these paintings meant in the evolution of these artists’ style and work.”