Neurophilosophy

The impressionists’ eye diseases

monet_japanese_footbridge.jpg

An article in the NY Times discusses the work of Michael Marmor, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine who has created a computer simulation of how eye diseases such as macular degeneration and cataracts have affected the painting styles of a number of impressionist artists.

Claude Monet, for example, was known to have suffered from slowly progressive cataracts. Although diagnosed in 1912, problems with his vision began about 7 years earlier, when Monet, who was then 65, began to complain of changes in his perception of colour:

…colors no longer had the same intensity for me…reds had begun to look muddy…my painting was getting more and more darkened. on the one hand trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and, on the other, to force of habit.

As his vision continued to deteriorate, Monet’s paintings became darker, less detailed and more abstract. The subject matter of the above painting from 1920 – the Japanese footbridge at Giverny, immortalized in his earlier water lily paintings – is barely recognizable.

In 1923, Monet finally agreed to have the cataract in his right eye surgically removed. The procedure had been available since the turn of the century, but he had until then refused it. Although he never had his left eye operated on, he was eventually fitted with effective corrective lenses.

Reference: 

Marmor, M. F. (2006). Ophthalmology and Art: Simulation of Monet’s Cataracts and Degas’ Retinal Disease. Arch. Ophthalmol. 124:1764-1769. [Full text]

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    December 4, 2007
    …my painting was getting more and more darkened. on the one hand trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and, on the other, to force of habit.

    As his vision continued to deteriorate, Monet’s paintings became darker,

    This aspect doesn’t make sense to me. If things looked darkened to him, I would think that he would do one of two things …

    * Go by the labels on the tubes of paint, in which case things would remain more or less unchanged in terms of brightness to other observers;

    * Use brighter colours to compensate, so that the appearance to him was more or less the same.

    Or am I missing something?

  2. #2 Monado
    December 4, 2007

    Second paragraph: Slowly progressive.” What was the condition?

    - Tnx

  3. #3 carolyn13
    December 5, 2007

    I have a stable form of retinitis pigmentosa and possibly the beginnings of macular degeneration. I also perceive color differently than I did when I was younger. It isn’t so much that colors have become darker to me, as a loss of ability to detect hues, so the colors I use in my paintings have lost some subtlety. As my vision decreases, I am losing the ability to see and draw the fine details I once did. I think that was what Monet experienced and why his style of painting changed.

  4. #4 Dave Briggs
    December 6, 2007

    I have heard people make jokes about the impressionists must have had eye problems but I never knew it was true! I think this speaks to the idea that rather that beauty being in the eye of the beholder, it is in the brain of the beholder. I am science, my sister is the professional artist, but I can enjoy esthetics, and I believe the purveyors of beauty, the artists, can touch one’s heart and even soul. whether the picture is crystal clear or a blur that the brain interprets as beauty.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  5. #5 Marla
    December 6, 2007

    I am an artist and have a good chance of getting macular degeneration. It runs in my family. This is my first visit to your blog. Very interesting stuff.

  6. #6 carolyn13
    December 7, 2007

    Hey, I got a clean bill of health on my eyes today, and I don’t have macular degeneration. That’s great news and the RP has stayed stable, just nibbling at the edges. I may be painting for more years yet.

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