Have Impressionists Suffered From Blurred Vision?

History is littered with imponderable “What Ifs”.

One could waste lifetimes – and probably go crazy in the process – considering all the hypothetical different outcomes that are thrown up by dabbling with “what ifs”. We only have to consider the “butterfly effect” to realise the possibility of how the tiniest change can result in huge consequences. Could the flap of a butterfly’s wing really produce a tornado on the other side of the world?

From weather conditions to the world of art; and here we can speculate as to whether the popular 19th century impressionist movement – and indeed all the artists who were subsequently influenced by it – might not have occurred without some visual problems.

The American artist Mary Cassatt, who lived much of her adult life in France amid the impressionist movement, was forced to stop working years before her death (in 1926) because of cataracts. Undoubtedly many more masterpieces remained unpainted inside her head.

The French painter widely accredited with being the leader of the neo-impressionist movement, Georges Seurat, took a scientific approach to the way he applied his paint to the canvas. By the use of tiny dots of colour (known as pointillism) the viewer is required to join the dots rather than having the paints already blended on the canvas. This technique is pretty time consuming for the artist – Seurat took two years to complete his famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.  When viewing his great works I can’t help but wonder about his eyesight and how these pictures might be viewed by those with colour blindness.

But the artist whose works and style were most influenced by sight issues was the king and founder of impressionism: Claude Monet.

As he aged his paintings noticeably lost subtlety. Brush strokes became bolder and colours strikingly blue, orange or brown – the images lost detail and flowed into one another. Was this a conscious shift of style or was it because his eye sight was deteriorating?

It is known that in his later years he suffered from age-related cataracts and, as the condition worsened, Monet was forced to paint from memory.  He was left with a blurred and out of focus view of the world and, as the lenses in his eyes disintegrated further. Everything would have appeared to him as if through a muddy, yellow-orange haze. But Monet still continued to paint almost until his death at the age of 86. When he could no longer distinguish the colours on his palette, he would rely on his memory and the labels on the tubes of paint for guidance.

He sought the help of many ophthalmologists and eventually had one eye operated on with limited success. By today’s standards the procedure was primitive and the results offered only a very slight improvement. Afterwards he was fitted with special glasses which he complained distorted his vision and exaggerated colours.

As he entered his eighties, Monet’s paintings are noticeably less distinct with gloomy, darker tones. Unable to tolerate bright light, there is also an absence of light reflection in the huge water lily canvases he completed towards the end of his life.

It is impossible to know how Monet wanted his later canvases to look.  If he had been born a few years later he would have undergone routine cataract removal surgery; and we are left to wonder how his painting style might have evolved differently. What if ..