[NASW] Artists and opthamology

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 28, 2008

[CASW New Horizons: Michael Marmor, Professor of Opthamology, Stanford]

This was a very interesting little talk by an opthamologist and art collector about what happened to two particular artists as they lost their vision — Degas and Monet.  Here is a link to the original article, with pictures.

Degas suffered from maculopathy, where his vision gradually deteriorated over a period of years. The fine detail of his work disappeared, the shading lines grew coarse and far apart instead of fine and close together, and features (like faces) because poorly delineated. Early work shows a lot of fine detail, but the later work is expressive only in its general posture.  Click here to see pictures of the evolution of Degas’ work over time.

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

He showed us examples from early, middle, and late work, and you can clearly see the degeneration in his work. Below are examples, but his later work (which I couldn’t find examples of) is almost grotesque. Faces look frightening and postures are awkward. His friends and colleagues also told him that his work was not quite, shall we say, up to snuff. Dr. Marmor simulated for us what the paintings probably looked like to Degas, considering the state of his vision, and you can see that the course shading lines and awkward expressions disappear. He probably couldn’t appreciate how others saw his work in those years, because his poor vision erased the flaws in his own work in his eyes. Dr. Marmor looked at a variety of data (his handwriting, comments of friends, the spacing of shading lines) and reconstructed a relatively linear pattern of the decline of Degas’ vision over time. He eventually stopped producting work shortly before he died.

Monet suffered from cataracts, in which the lens hardens and yellows. The lens in our eye naturally gets more dense and yellow as we get old, but cataracts are an extreme example of this natural aging process. In about 1912 Monet complained of vision loss, and by 1922 he was legally blind.

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

As an impressionist, Monet dealt with light and shadow, not detail, and so he was able to continue to produce work for quite some time despite his declining sight. However, cataracts affect your color vision, and this affected the quality of his work. He usually produced work with delicate colors and light, but examples of his later work showed almost garish use of orange and green, which was most likely his attempt to actually see the color on the canvas. In the years before he finally submitted to cataract surgery, he was painting almost entirely from memory, because he could no longer distinguish blues and greens, or reds and purples. Again, Dr. Marmor showed us simulations of what Monet’s work probably looked like to him, and the strong colors faded into muddiness. Click here to see images showing how Monet’s later water lily paintings would have appeared through a moderate cataract. The forms also became indistinguishable. Dr. Marmor showed us a late Monet painting and asked us to identify it. To me, it was a mass of blobs of color with a few blurry lines. It turned out that it was the bridge in Monet’s japanese garden. It was completely unrecognizeable to me.  Take a look at that picture here, as well as how it would have appeared to Monet through his now-severe cataracts.

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

He argued that the change in style wasn’t due to artistic changes, because Monet’s work returned to its former style after he underwent surgery.

One interesting tidbit that I liked, since I think perception is just so cool, was that in Soleil Levant, below, the reason that the rising sun against the blue sky is so striking is because the blue and the orange are of the same intensity. This makes it hard for our brain to place the sun clearly in space because we don’t have the contrast we usually rely upon to make boundaries between objects.

Monet - Soleil Levant - 1872[Monet – Soleil Levant]

It turns out that there is a Society of Blind Artists nowadays. Many of them, not surprisingly, are photographers, since the film will faithfully capture what they are unable to see clearly.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ruth Bourne November 12, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Fascinating stuff, thanks!

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