Eyeing Impressionism

The Rose Walk, Giverny, 1920–22, Musée Marmottan Monet
The Rose Walk, Giverny, 1920–22, Musée Marmottan Monet Wikimedia Commons

The bold brush strokes and striking colors of the impressionist painters make for some of the most acclaimed and recognizable pieces in the world's finest art collections. Claude Monet's "Twilight, Venice," above, is a good example. But what if its lack of detail and blurring of color were not so much deliberate choices by the artist, but rather, unintentional consequences of his failing eyesight?

Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in 1912, though even seven years before that he had complained that "colors no longer had the same intensity...reds had begun to look muddy." Mary Cassatt had cataracts, too, and Edgar Degas suffered from macular degeneration.

Recently, Stanford ophthalmologist Michael Marmor made computer simulations that showed how degenerative eye diseases change color perception in the visual field. Based on his research, published in the Archives of Ophthamology, Marmor told the New York Times that “[Monet] couldn’t judge what he was seeing or see what he was painting...It is a mystery how he worked.â€?

We'll never know, of course, whether Monet intended his beautiful landscapes to blur. We do know that he underwent cataract surgery three years before he died, in 1923. After the surgery, he destroyed many of his previous pieces. He also painted works like "Roses," (1925-26) below, with supposedly more refined lines and subtle colors. Kinda looks the same to me.

(Hat tip: Neurophilosopher; "Twilight, Venice," Claude Monet, 1908, via Wikimedia Commons; "Roses," Claude Monet, 1925, via Pierre-Olivier Douphis.)

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