How Monet's cataracts coloured his view of the lilies
By Jonathan Brown
Published: 16 May 2007
Monet's series of paintings depicting the dappled light playing across the water-lilies at his home in Giverny are considered some of the finest works by the French Impressionists.
But new research suggests the famously blurred effect achieved by the master's brush strokes may have been a literal representation of how he saw the world.
Monet's deteriorating sight, caused by the onset of cataracts, has long been the subject of speculation by art historians. A computer simulation carried out by an ophthalmologist at Stanford University has now cast new light on the state of Monet's vision and the effect it had on his work.
According to Professor Michael Marmor, the artist's failing sight was a source of frustration to him in the early decades of the 20th century. "He wrote letters to friends, [complaining] how colours were getting dull, and it was hard to tell them apart, and how he had to label tubes of paint," Professor Marmor said. "He was very vocal about how his failing eyesight was affecting him."
Monet's cataracts caused the lens of his eye to become denser and more yellowish. One immediate effect was to blur colours and reduce their intensity. "It was getting harder for him to see," Professor Marmor said. "[His eyesight] was getting blurrier, but he was probably more bothered by the progressive loss of colour vision."
The academic has illustrated how Monet's worldview changed by altering a photograph of his 1899 painting of the ornamental Japanese bridge in his garden. The adjusted photo shows that as the artist's sight got worse, so the bright, floral shades of pink and blue disappeared, leaving muddier browns, reds and yellows. The study, published in the Archives of Ophthalmology, argues that two later paintings of the bridge with strong red-orange and green-blue tones would have appeared almost identical to him.
Monet eventually had surgery in 1923 - just three years before his death from lung cancer at the age of 86. But afterwards he complained incessantly that his sight was first too yellow and then too blue. He destroyed much of the work he completed while suffering cataracts and the few pieces that survive were rescued by family or friends. When Monet eventually went back to painting, he completed the lily series that now hangs in the Orangerie.
Professor Marmor has also examined the life and work of the painter Edgar Degas, thought to have suffered from maculopathy - a condition which seriously affected his central vision. The evidence could force a dramatic reappraisal of both artists' work, he believes. "I think it points out very dramatically some physical limitations that they had, which limited their ability to paint."
But Chris Riopelle, curator of 19th-century painting at the National Gallery, said: "It does not entirely answer the questions - after surgery, Monet's style did not alter radically."