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Wednesday / July 17.
HomemistoryWere the Impressionists Myopic?

Were the Impressionists Myopic?

Impressionist painters were often accused of being myopic – perhaps a simplistic explanation for their loose painterly style. However, over the years and with forensic examination, we now know there was less uncorrected myopia than suggested, that other ocular conditions influenced their art, and that like many of our patients with vision loss today, they didn’t allow their disability to hold them back.

Monet: The House Seen from the Rose Garden, 1924, painted with an aphakic eye (left) and a cataract eye (right)

For those who follow AFL, the irony of the umpires being sponsored by a major optical firm is self-evident. As with all sports, loud-mouthed spectators in the stands, unhappy with an umpire’s decision, often question the umpire’s judgement in the heat of the moment. Shouts of “are you blind, where are your glasses?” will be familiar to all those who go along for the games. But perhaps those who shout out should also question their own eyesight.

In the manner of these biased spectators, a hundred years after the first Impressionist art exhibition, British ophthalmologist Patrick Trevor-Roper published his book The World Through Blunted Sight. In it, he suggested the founders of Impressionism were simply a group of uncorrected myopes.

That they painted to portray their world in a new manner, railing against the formalist art of the time because they were myopic, seems nonsensical to us now. Yet many have followed the line of enquiry and in the manner of good historians we now know more about the vision of the Impressionist artists than possibly any other art movement in history. The findings of this research turn out to be fascinating and while we discover there was less uncorrected myopia than suggested, there were other ocular conditions that did have some influence on their art.

…while we discover there was less uncorrected myopia than suggested, there were other ocular conditions that did have some influence on their art

Who Were the Impressionists?

The Impressionists were a group of mainly landscape artists who first exhibited in Paris in 1874 as an alternate exhibition to the mainstream annual Paris Salon where art had traditionally been displayed and sold under the auspices of the art establishment.

At the Salon, thousands of paintings were on show, filling the walls from the floor to the ceiling. An artist’s prospects depended on being selected in the first place and then being hung in a position favourable to their work. The artists who created their own exhibition that year were, in the main, rejected from the Salon. The critics came and while some were favourable, the majority derided the group as being mere impressionists as the work appeared so crude and unrefined and unfinished.

When examining a painting titled Impression Sunrise, nineteenth century printmaker Louis Leroy commented, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape”.

The paintings on display were often quickly done on small canvases and usually painted out of doors with impasto dabs of bright colour from the new paint colours recently invented. They neglected detail to highlight the interplay of light and colour. As in the real world there were few blacks and the subject matter was less important than capturing the effects of light. In contrast, the traditional Paris Salon paintings were meticulous in detail with invisible brushstrokes, grand images of allegorical themes, romantic recreations of ancient mythology, and bucolic imaginary landscapes covered with a layer of brown varnish. The art of these Impressionists rebelled against that of the establishment.

Nearly 150 years later the art of the Impressionists is probably the most popular and recognisable art to be viewed worldwide. Impressionist exhibitions draw large crowds including the recent Degas exhibition in Melbourne. Their individual names are famous and included Claude Monet, the longest living and most prolific of the Impressionists, whose painting “Impression Sunrise” led to the naming of the movement.

There was the dapper Eduard Manet who didn’t exhibit with the others (nor did he stop using black paint). Manet was hoping to finally seek the approval of the Paris Salon and didn’t want to be considered a rebel, yet he was the most controversial painter of the time with his confronting nudes painted in what was a modern style. Being a little older, Manet was an inspiration to the others.

Camille Pissarro was the artist who organised a series of eight Impressionist exhibitions held from 1874 through to 1886 for the group to promote their new style. Auguste Renoir initially painted out of doors with Monet. His paintings of that time were often virtually identical, however later, he painted more chocolate box cherubic portraits of plumpish women with very pink complexions. Eduard Degas, like Manet, preferred not to be called be an Impressionist and, while famed for his realistic depiction of ballerinas and racehorses in later life, he adopted something of the Impressionist style. The Impressionists all had their own techniques as seen by the reclusive Paul Cezanne whose works seemed to foretell the later development of Cubism and whose technique meant he was reworking his canvases for years before he was satisfied. And while not a member of the group, the works of Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutchman living in France, have also been considered Impressionist.

British eye surgeon Patrick Trevor Roper was evidently not a fan of Impressionism. In his 1970 publication he states, “…it is the sort of view they always have without their glasses. Artists who aim primarily for effects of mass, line, colour and symbolism, just as often used by the lazy or the immature (as in primitive painting or child-art). This imagery was triumphantly exploited by most of the artists who came to be called the Impressionists.”

Trevor Roper was describing the prejudices of the time. To him myopia was not just a refractive error, but an affliction associated with distinct personality traits, posture and body movement.

To buttress his argument he used a survey of 128 staff and students of Ecole des Beaux-Arts (Art School) in Paris published in 1917 showing a myopia incidence of 48 per cent.

Uncovering the Evidence

Interestingly, a broader study of myopia in France published in Ophthalmology in 2015, found an incidence of myopia of 18 per cent in those born between 1910 and 1939. The French study showed those with higher education had double the incidence of myopia suggesting that perhaps the art students may well be considered as ‘higher educated’. If, as we now know, myopia development has to do with lack of outdoor activities then artists and art students in their studios understandably might well have been prime candidates.

But were the Impressionist artists really uncorrected myopes? How would we know for the question raises the same issues we confront when assessing a patient’s family history? A patient may know their parents or grandparents wore spectacles, but do they know what was being corrected. How do we, 150 years later, determine what the eyesight of these Impressionists were?

To assist us was the fact that, as Impressionists gained fame, many were written about and they themselves were prolific letter writers. Even their critics at the time gave us clues. Yet the only artist of the group who was significantly myopic was Paul Cezanne, and more importantly, he was the only one documented as having rejected the wearing of spectacles. “Take those vulgar things away” he is quoted as saying.

Cezanne: Mount Sainte-Victoire, 1895 (left) and Self Portrait with Palette, 1890 (right)

Cezanne and Diabetic Eye Disease

It was a fashion in Paris at the time for the young men to abstain from wearing spectacles so perhaps Cezanne was merely following fashion. The critics at the time knew he had defective vision with the magazine L’éclair in 1906 stating Cezanne “was an incomplete talent whose imperfect vision kept his work undeveloped”.

Pretty tough criticism considering Paul Cezanne developed diabetes in 1891. At the age of 52, he noted he could no longer discern the difference between blue and green, suggesting he may well have had retinopathy at the time of diagnosis. What a devastating condition to have at the time for it was a quarter of a century before the introduction of insulin. In the nineteenth century, treatments were mostly food fads and included starvation.

Cezanne died in 1906 in a diabetic coma, the year of the criticism quoted above. At that time a child with newly diagnosed diabetes would only survive for a year and a 50-year old with adult onset disease would survive, on average, eight years. Cezanne lived just those few years longer. Cezanne may well have had his art influenced by his uncorrected myopia for his famous still life paintings are often sharp edged and vibrant whereas some of the series of paintings of Mount Sainte Victoire are much more soft edged and faded. But only some, for much of the finishing touches may well have been added later, as was Cezanne’s habit.

While it is accepted that Cezanne was a myope, in the literature I am intrigued by his self portrait of 1890, in which he appears to be wearing a monocle in his right eye. Did he need it to see himself in a mirror or was he a presbyope at age 51?

The only American Impressionist who exhibited with the group was Mary Cassatt and she also developed diabetes in her 50’s. While she lived longer than Cezanne, she developed both diabetic retinopathy and cataracts and had to give up painting. At the time she was treated with the newest medication of the day, inhalations of radium! Unfortunately cataract surgery failed and she was left blind for her remaining years.

So the only known Impressionist with definite myopia was Paul Cezanne and his style was hardly typical of the rest of the Impressionists.

Monet: Impression, Sunrise, 1872

Monet and Cataracts

The real father of Impressionism was Claude Monet and while Trevor Roper suggested he may have become myopic, development of cataracts in later life suggest myopia was surely a long bow to draw.

Monet was a prolific painter, creating over 5,000 works in his lifetime. He also regularly corresponded with his multiple ophthalmologists as he tried various ways to deal with his increasing cataracts without surgery including using belladonna (atropine) drops to dilate his pupils. When Monet finally did have his cataract surgery he was unhappy with the visual outcome and there is a long correspondence with his treating ophthalmologists.

Monet, as he lost his vision to cataract, wrote of the colour change in his palette. He could no longer see blues and his works became increasingly red and yellow. While he was what we would now call legally blind by 1922, he was also under great pressure. Monet had committed himself to complete some major waterlily paintings for a new gallery commissioned by the French government as a tribute to the war dead of the First World War. In his early 80’s he was terrified of having cataract surgery having seen Mary Cassatt blinded following the operation.

The former prime minister insisted he have the surgery. Monet relented and had only one eye operated on. This left Monet aphakic and dealing with both the distortion of his +14D/+4D spectacle lens and the saturation of blue having had his lens removed. Monet, who had spent his life documenting subtle difference in colour, undertook what was perhaps the world’s first controlled study of cataract surgery, painting the same scene with first his operated eye – too blue, and his non-operated eye – too red (refer page 22). It wasn’t until Zeiss lenses with a yellow tint were provided that he could resume painting.

Why was everything so blue for Monet? The human lens absorbs both some of the blue spectrum and the UV spectrum. The modern intraocular lens includes a UV filter so these days only relatively few patients complain of excessive blueness. The majority of lenses implanted in Australia have an additional yellow tint, a blue blocking filter, designed to protect the macula from blue light, yet perhaps also making the vision more normalised (it provides as much blue blocking as an adult non-cataractous lens).

What we have learnt from having Monet’s post cataract aphakic prescription is that he was not a myope prior to cataract surgery. Not only is his prescription slightly suggestive of hypermetropia it was only after he had his cataract surgery that he first wore spectacles.

Renoir: The Loge, 1874 (below) and Woman in a straw hat, 1916-1918 (right)

Renoir and Cataracts

What we know of Auguste Renoir’s vision comes from his son’s memoirs. While Trevor Roper called Renoir a myope because he was able to paint miniatures without spectacles at the age of 64, his son says he in fact had reading glasses. Moreover his father was fond of sitting on his veranda overlooking the port and was always the first to identify the name of the ship coming to port. Hardly the visual function of an uncorrected myope.

Part of the argument regarding Renoir’s vision is based upon the fact that in his later years his paintings became coarser and less refined. A photograph exists of Renoir painting in his old age. He fingers are crippled by what appears to be rheumatoid arthritis and, unable to hold his brushes, he had them bandaged to his wrist. It is a triumph of determination and a sufficient explanation as to why his final paintings are not as well executed. As to the noted colour change, with a move towards warmer colours and reds late in life it might be reasonable to presume Renoir, then in his late seventies, may like Monet, have been developing cataracts.

Degas: Dancers at the Barre, 1890 to 1900 (left) and Two dancers entering the stage, 1877 (right)

Degas and Photophobia

Edgar Degas has surviving spectacles held by the Museum D’Orsay in Paris. There is one pair with a -1.50 lens in each eye. A second pair has one eye blanked out with a black metal disc and the other just a stenopaiec slit in the metal disc along his presumed axis of astigmatism. Lastly, there is a pair of heavily tinted spectacles with no correction. His myopia is therefore mild and would have had little effect on his painting, particularly as we know he had access to corrective spectacles.

Degas found he was blind in one eye when he was exempted from the army at the age of 32. He had developed a central scotoma and then gradually lost the central vision in his fellow eye so that by the age of 55 he could no longer read. A painter who preferred to paint indoors because of his severe photophobia he painted realistic paintings of indoor subjects such as ballet dancers, scenes from concerts and the opera. His works often showed images in low light, most likely a concession to his photophobia. As his sight faded, Degas took advantage of photography, then in its infancy, to assist with details. As his sight deteriorated further he moved to brighter colours, broader brushstrokes and finally to the use of crayons and lastly to creating sculptured figures. While his early work is considered beautiful, it was his later coarser works that captured the imagination of the art world.

As Renoir said “Degas did his best paintings when he was no longer able to see.”

Degas was half Creole from America. When visiting New Orleans he discovered a female cousin his own age who was also going blind in both eyes. The only diagnosis made during his lifetime was that he had chorioretinitis, which we presume may mean scarring was visible with the ophthalmoscope.

In the context of his family history, it is suggested that Degas and his cousin may have suffered from autosomal recessive cone-rod dystrophy such as Stargardt’s disease. These dystrophies are somewhat the reverse of retinitis pigmentosa with loss of the central vision occurring first. Sufferers have significant issues
with photophobia.

Degas never went completely blind. He was able to navigate the streets alone in his old age, a facility we often see in our patients with advanced macular degeneration.

Pissarro and Presbyopia

Camille Pissarro, who organised the first and subsequent exhibitions, was the only artist to exhibit at all eight Impressionist exhibitions. He was an Impressionist who also tried his hand at pointillism (where dots of colour are placed beside each other to blend within the viewer’s eye). Like many artists his styles changed during his life.

Pissarro is the only Impressionist to paint himself wearing spectacles. These were half glasses appearing in the later years of his life and consistent with presbyopia. Pissarro may not have been a myope, but he did have an eye condition which affected his work. Like many others in the group (except for Degas who couldn’t cope with the glare and preferred his few landscapes to be painted from memory) Pissarro painted out of doors. However at the age of 57, he developed an infection in his right lacrimal sac and was treated by a homeopathic ophthalmologist. From then on he was plagued with recurrent dacryocystitis with frequent abscesses. The right eye would water profusely in the wind and sun so he adapted by painting from indoors. He would set up his easel, often on a higher floor of a building overlooking a boulevard, and from inside would paint his wonderful streetscapes of Paris.

Pissarro suffered multiple tortuous procedures including injections of silver nitrate and probings for the rest of his life, and has been called the Tearful Impressionist. The year after his death, Toti published the first paper on dacryocystorhinostomy, a procedure that could well have cured his condition.

Van Gogh and His Mental Health

Vincent Van Gogh painted for only seven years of his short life (he died age 37) but what is noticeable is how much yellow features in his works, even in his portraits. While Trevor Roper also believed Van Gogh was a myope, this was discredited by an eye test two months before Van Gogh committed suicide. The test was done by his treating doctor, Dr. Gachet who was a homeopathic physician trying to deal with Van Gogh’s troubled mental state. Van Gogh has painted Dr. Gachet’s portrait and has included the foxglove flower on the table. Foxglove is the source of digitalis, a drug commonly used for heart conditions, but at the time also widely used for mental illness. An overdose of foxglove causes xanthopsia, yellow vision, an effect on the cerebral cortex of the brain. Could Van Gogh have been overdosed for years by his treating doctor, and is this why he used so much yellow in his paintings? Mind you, Van Gogh was also an absinthe drinker. Absinthe has been banned as a liquor as it contains hallucinogens and was very popular at the end of the 19th century. It alone may well have had the effect on Van Gogh’s art that made him unique at the time.

Defying The Odds

It is of interest to discover how many within this group of artists suffered from eye conditions that today are mostly treatable. It is a tribute to their determination that they continued to work. Monet, while blind, painted with his colours labelled and with large brushes in a style that foretold the abstract works of the mid 20th century. After his cataract surgery Monet completed the giant canvases of waterlilies that grace the Museum de L’Orangerie in Paris yet he didn’t live long enough to see them hung in place. Renoir with his crippled hands had incomplete works on his easel when he died. Degas, who never married, was lonely and embittered by his blindness yet completed works and sculptures from memory in his later years. Cezanne, moving from realism to abstraction as his vision deteriorated, lead the way towards the modernist movement.

But were they myopic when in their twenties and thirties they, a group of like-minded landscape painters, first met and painted together and developed their style? I think not. Like many artistic movements they thought about what they were doing, they learnt from each, they collaborated, they debated about techniques, they disagreed, some changed their style and not surprisingly, by 1886 they no longer exhibited together. Some became famed and wealthy, others died in poverty. When the Australian Alan Bond paid the highest price for a single painting in1987 for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers ($54 million) it is poignant to note Van Gogh is recorded as having only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Van Gogh: Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890

What Does This Mean Today?

We all have examples of patients we have seen who have defied their visual status to perform better than we expect. While we are bound by guidelines, such as requiring 6/12 in the better eye for driving to safeguard the patient and the public, we should be careful in prejudging what an individual, artist or not, can achieve.

I have in my practice the records of an ophthalmologist from the 1930’s onwards. A curiosity was that when seeing a 90-year woman with ocular albinism, I was able to access these records and found the advice given to her parents by the ophthalmologist when she was a teenager. She has never had better acuity than 6/24 with her nystagmus and under-developed macula. Her parents were told she would not complete her education or be employable. In fact she only retired in her late sixties after a lifetime as a secretary.

Like our artists there are many who have achieved much in their lives against all odds and just as there should be no sexism, we in the seeing professions should ensure there is no see-ism.

Dr. Joseph Reich is an ophthalmologist with Vision Eye Institute based in Melbourne. He specialises in cataract surgery and laser eye surgery, with a special interest in intraocular lenses. Dr. Reich trained at the Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne. Following visits to the United Kingdom and United States, he was appointed as a consultant ophthalmologist to the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital where he has acted as Chairman of the Senior Medical Staff, Head of Clinic and the Deputy Director of the Clinical School.

Dr. Reich was a foundation member of the Melbourne Excimer Laser Group and he performed the first laser procedure in Victoria in 1991.

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2. Marmor MF, Ravin JG. The Eye of the Artist. Saint Louis: Mosby; 1997.
3. “Art Vision and the Disordered eye” website from the Department of Psychology, The University of Calgary, Canada
4. Polland W. The Artist’s eye. Myopic artists. Acta Ophthalmol Scand. 2004; a. 82: 325-326.
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7. Ravin JG. Pissarro, dacryocystitis, and the development of modern lacrimal surgery. Doc Ophthalmol. 1994; 86: 191-202.
8. Karcioglu ZA. Did Edgar Degas have an inherited retinal degeneration? Ophthalmic Genet. 2007; 28: 51-55.