At the Milliner’s Shop, Edgar Degas, between 1905 and 1910.
Stanford opthamologist Michael Marmor has written two books on eye disease and famous artists. He focuses on Edgar Degas and Claude Monet and raises the question of whether their declining eyesight materially changed their painting.
Degas suffered retinal disease as he aged and Monet had cataracts. (While cataracts are easily repaired in the 21st century, retinal disease is a trickier process.)
Woman with Loose Red Hair, Edgar Degas, undated
Marmor used Photoshop to blur and reduce saturation in some of the artists’ later work to give some sense of what they might have seen.
“These simulations may lead one to question whether the artists intended these late works to look exactly as they do,” said Marmor, who concluded that “these artists weren't painting in this manner totally for artistic reasons.”
Water Lilies, Claude Monet, painted between 1917-19, when his cataract process was well underway.
No artists achieve exactly what their mind’s eye lays out for them. The difference between intention and execution is the artifact the world understands as “style.” And no artist paints as he or she does totally for artistic reasons. The Impressionists, in particular, were painting in a period of rapid technological change. New pigments, the invention of the paint tube (leading to plein air painting), gaslight, chemical dyes which literally changed the way the world looked, industrial air pollution and a host of other innovations affected their painting.
“Contemporaries of both have noted that their late works were strangely coarse or garish and seemed out of character to the finer works that these artists had produced over the years,” Marmor wrote.
The Rose Walk, Giverny, Claude Monet, painted from 1920–22, when his cataracts were overripe.
Of course many artists throw over the traces in their old age. It’s the “I don’t give a #$%” phase, where all the aspirations and conventions which have guided one’s work over decades suddenly become tiresome and one just sublimates oneself in the paint. May I live long enough to experience it myself.