It’s long been noted that the impressionists steadily grew more abstract as the 19th century came to a close. One only has to compare an early Monet from the 1870’s to a late Monet landscape to understand the importance of this transition. The pretty pastels and dappling light gave way to thick impasto paints and blank spots on the canvas. In other words, the impressionists had become post-impressionists.
This transition is usually explained in terms of culture: the impressionists were simply reacting to the increasing acceptance of painterly abstraction. Modernism was beginning, verisimilitude was a thing of the past. But art historians are also beginning to explore a related hypothesis: perhaps the late works of the impressionists were partly due to eye troubles.
The impressionists, after all, were an ophthalmologists nightmare. Monet became blind due to cataracts (but didn’t stop painting the bridges of Giverny). Vincent Van Gogh, drinker of kerosene, turpentine, and absinthe, probably thought the coronas he painted around stars and streetlamps were real. Edgar Degas became severely myopic, which led him to do more and more sculpture (“I must learn a blind man’s trade now,” Degas said.) Auguste Renoir, poisoned by his pastel paints, became a rheumatic cripple.
“Here we can see 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 mean in the evolution of these artists’ style and work.”
Works by Edgar Degas in 1886, left, and 1905, center. Right, an image altered to show what Degas would have seen working on the 1905 piece.