Friday, January 19, 2018

How Important is Eyesight to a Painter?

Degas Painting, 1867
Degas was 33

Degas, who fretted about problems with his eyes all his life, suffered from retinopathy.  We don’t know exactly what the problem was; 19th century ophthalmology didn’t have the tools we have today for diagnosis.  And his doctors could do nothing.  By the time he turned 40, he had to limit his working time so much that he complained to a friend:
My eyes are very bad. The oculist…has allowed me to work just a little until I send in my pictures.   I do so with much difficulty and the greatest sadness.
By 57, he was more or less blind and couldn't even read.   This news startled me since I, like many, consider the paintings made during his later years to be his best.  His pastels especially are full of brilliant color and beautifully-handled edges.  Eyesight, it's clear, isn’t as important as vision—that is, artistic vision. 

Degas Painting, 1876
Degas was 42

The creative impulse doesn't stop when the tools to express it wear out.  When his ability to paint lessened, Degas added sculpture to his repertoire, along with printmaking and photography.

Degas Painting, 1894-1899
Degas was 60-65

Degas wasn't alone among the French Impressionists to suffer eye problems.  Starting around 65, Monet began to suffer from cataracts, which cast a yellow glare over the world and diffused edges.  His work gradually became more abstract and more dependent on shape and color rather than drawing.

Poor Mary Cassatt suffered from not just cataracts but also diabetic retinopathy.  She underwent several operations, but they only left her worse off. 

Monet, hearing of Cassatt's failed surgeries, had surgery on only one eye, and he was so disappointed with the results that he refused to have the other eye done.  For a time, he convinced himself that he liked the effect cataracts gave him, but in the end, at 82, he said:
I was forced to recognize that I was spoiling them [the paintings], that I was no longer capable of doing anything good.  So I destroyed several of my panels.  Now I’m almost blind and I’m having to abandon work altogether.
As with Degas, many critics believe that the work of Monet and Cassatt improved as their eyesight worsened (up to a point.)  Was it becoming blind that improved their work, or was it the constant practice of the craft?  It doesn't really matter.  The facts give those of us who are aging artists the hope that, even with failing vision, our work will just get better.

If you’d like to read more about vision loss and artists, check out this website.

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