Paris' Museum of Orangerie reopen, Monet's Nympheas enjoy natural lighting again in Paris, France on May 02nd, 2006.

How Monet’s artistic vision shone through sick eyes

Imagine the horror of being an artist of light and color who begins to lose his sight. French Impressionist Claude Monet’s vision began to deteriorate in his late 60s, when he began to experience a decrease in his ability to discern different colors. The irony is that because Monet’s paintings lack particular precision, his medical problem was not immediately obvious, but worsened as he got older.

While walking through the National Gallery in London and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris recently, I was reminded of Monet, whose birthday would have been this week, November 14, and a brilliant article on health artist’s eyepiece that I read – with great pleasure – in medical school.

Portrait of the artist Claude Monet

Claude Monet in 1898, 10 years before he began to notice his eyesight failing. Photo via Getty Images

Ophthalmologist Dr. James Ravin published his essay on “Monet’s cataracts” in JAMA in 1985, opening my eyes to the remarkable interactions of medicine, medical history and art, especially when, as Louis Pasteur suggested, chance favored the prepared mind.

Thanks to Ravin, who studied Monet’s letters to his eye surgeons, examined a pair of the artist’s specially tinted cataract glasses, and interviewed the technician who worked for the last eye doctor Monet consulted, we have a much better understanding. of how cataracts – an opacity of the lens that develops with age – influenced his latest works of art.

At the risk of sounding like a rogue, my first “impressions” of Monet’s later works were how blurry they appeared. By 1908, Ravin notes, distant objects in Monet’s paintings seemed more out of focus. In 1918, the artist declared that he no longer perceived “colors with the same intensity” nor interpreted sunlight with precision, the keystone of the Impressionist school. The color red, for example, has become “muddy”. The pink color began to fade. The “intermediate or low tones” also escape him.

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After 1918, Monet began seeing several eye surgeons, but received conflicting diagnoses, prognoses, and treatment plans. Although healers have been removing cataracts since ancient times and have done so relatively painlessly for nearly 150 years, the operation Monet faced was still fraught with complications. He was, understandably, hesitant to go under the knife, perhaps knowing how fellow artist Mary Cassatt underwent a similar surgery with less than satisfactory results. He became increasingly depressed and admitted, “I have spent many cruel hours in my life, but I have never been so tortured.”

French statesman and former physician Georges Clemenceau commissioned Monet to paint his famous water lilies – a major project that occupied the artist from 1914 until his death in 1926 – but also to secure medical aid for his seen. Although Monet promised to give the paintings to the French nation, he became so unhappy with his work and his visual impairment that he attempted to have them removed in 1921. Fortunately, Clemenceau convinced him otherwise.

The house seen from the rose garden

“The house seen from the rose garden” by Monet, 1922-1924. Image via Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

By 1922 his works lacked distinct forms, and an art critic noted that they were becoming increasingly monochromatic. After being declared legally blind in September, Monet was referred to a Parisian ophthalmologist named Charles Cotela. After being diagnosed, Monet worried about the prospect of surgery for his right eye, but eventually acquiesced.

The artist’s recovery was stormy and slow, even while wearing anti-cataract glasses. The posterior lens capsule of his right eye had become cloudy and he was having trouble seeing.

“It is to my great sorrow that I regret having undergone this fatal operation,” Monet wrote to Cotela. “Forgive me for speaking so bluntly and let me tell you that it is criminal to have put me in this situation.”

Reopening of the Claude Monet house and foundation after restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)...

Claude Monet’s pond garden in Giverny, France, in 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Monet underwent another operation in 1923 and recovered over the following year, but still needed glasses of different tints. For the rest of his life he continued to experience visual and chromatic disturbances, but continued to paint. He died in December 1926, most likely due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from chronic smoking.

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The following spring, his majestic water lilies were installed in the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries behind the Louvre, where they can still be seen today. Many art historians consider the late work of the artist – made under the veil of the cataract – as “a link with the abstract art of the 20th century”, wrote Ravin.

For those of us with so-called perfect eyesight, or perhaps a little myopic, water lilies are still masterpieces of vision, regardless of Monet’s eye condition.

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