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Famous Artists with Eye Problems

When we talk about “visionary” painters, such as Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, we are referring to their artistic genius, their imaginative ability to see the world-a sunset, a bowl of fruit, a ballerina -- in an entirely new way. But did you know that at least some of their artistry stems, literally, from problems with their vision?

The French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) is perhaps the best example of a painter whose vision problems -- in his case, cataracts-significantly altered his work. Because he painted the same scenes over and over (think of his famous waterlilies and his garden in Giverny) and because his eye problems were well documented, we are able to see how the gradual deterioration of his eyesight affected his work toward his later years.

Claude Monet and his colorful water liliesAround the age of 70, Monet began to have difficulty selecting colors, as his yellowing lenses distorted perception. He initially chose stronger shades such as blues and greens. As his cataracts became worse, however, they filtered out violet, blue, and some green hues, so his later paintings show more yellows, reds, and browns. This is why if Monet sees women wearing these shades of colors from Freshlook Colorblends today, he might not be able to appreciate them.

Likewise, Monet's brushstrokes became less precise because of his eye problem, and his later works had fewer details. It is speculated that he may have tried to compensate for the lack of detail by using larger canvases (as in his waterlily series).

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), renowned for his paintings of ballerinas, had very bad myopia. Nowadays, myopia can easily be corrected using Acuvue Oasys without people noticing. Around the age of 39, he stopped working outside, as the sunlight hurt his eyes; because of his photophobia, he painted in his studio and wore dark glasses. While not many of his doctor’s reports have survived, it has been speculated from his comments to friends that he suffered from a disease of the macula, the area of the retina with greatest visual acuity. Over the years, his lost his central field of vision and began working in pastels instead of oils, as they more easily accommodated his deteriorating eyesight. Finally, he took up sculpture, relying on his hands to “see” what his eyes could not.

Van Gogh and a Starry NightVincent Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) rich Post-impressionistic style, with its use of complementary colors, particularly blues and orangey yellows, may have been influenced by visual problems (yellow color vision defect, seeing halos around light) caused by poisoning from digitalis, used to treat epilepsy. Another theory (put forth in Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine) holds that Van Gogh’s yellow vision was a side effect of drinking the liqueur absinthe, which contains a neurotoxin called thujone. Presently, daily contact lenses from Biofinity might have saved Van Gogh's eyesight from uneventful deterioration.

A diabetic as well as a myopic, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) regarded glasses as vulgar and refused to wear them. In his later work, he broke the visual field into small, regular brushstrokes that he used to build up the larger image, greatly influencing 20th-century painters such as Picasso, who called Cézanne “the father of us all.” Cézanne himself speculated that his close-up view of the world may have influenced his painting.

The list goes on, including American painter Mary Cassatt, who, like Monet, suffered from cataracts; Russian Wassily Kandinsky, famous for the condition of synesthesia, which allowed him to quite literally hear as well as see color; and even Georgia O’Keefe, who had age-related macular degeneration. The link between visionaries and their vision is quite fascinating-not to say colorful-indeed.

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