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Are Painters Famous Because There Is Something Wrong With Their Eyes?

Are Painters Famous Because There Is Something Wrong With Their Eyes?

In our mind, most creative geniuses seem to be "insane." 

They are sentimental, witty, and some are even somewhat mad. 

So, for painters who are highly dependent on vision, if there is something wrong with their eyes (visual impairment), what will the world look like in their eyes and their writings? 

Mist in front of our eyes: cataracts

In a letter to a friend in 1922, Claude Monet, an 82-year-old impressionist painter, wrote: "my deteriorating eyesight makes everything around me look foggy. The world in my eyes now is wonderful, and that's what I want to express in the painting. I'm delighted now. " 

That year, Monet completed one of his masterpieces, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies.

The painting is mainly in dark yellow and dark red, and the lines are so vague that it is almost impossible to observe the outlines. 


When Monet did not have eye disease in 1899, he painted the same background. 

This one is entirely different from the last one: the details in this painting are clearer, and the use of colors is more delicate. 


The fog that covered Monet's world is a cataract, common in the middle-aged and elderly. It is an eye disease which can be improved by transplanting the artificial crystalline lens. 

At that time, however, cataract surgery was not so advanced.

At first, Monet worried about the risks of surgery, but eventually got the lens removed in 1923. 

It is said that after the surgery, he could see ultraviolet light, so water lilies repainted by him has more blue color than ever. 

(This opinion is questioned because he painted blue water lilies before.) 


Here are water lilies painted by Monet at different times (before and after cataract surgery). Photos from Skeptical Artist 

Cataract surgery means the removal of the lens because the phacoscotasmus will lead to visual impairment. 

The lens is like a camera lens to our eyes. It is clear when healthy, and it can refract lights and get them focused on the retina. The lens contains water and crystallin to maintain its normal function.

The crystallin, whose structure is like other proteins in our bodies, can be damaged by external factors, such as oxidation and ultraviolet radiation. 


Tear and wear over the years lead to the alienation of the crystalline structure, ending up like a film built up by dust, resulting in a blurred vision.

The accumulation of crystallin also makes the vision yellow, just like wearing a layer of yellow gauze above the eyes, resulting in color illusions.  

Monet was not the only painter affected by cataracts. 

Mary Cassatt, an American female painter, was a painter comparable with impressionist masters, such as Monet and Degas. 

But she focused more on lines, contours, and details than Monet. 

Cassatt was diagnosed with cataracts at the age of 68. 

Unfortunately, because of the shortage of medical personnel during World War I, she was unable to receive timely treatment and was forced to give up painting at the age of 71. 


A painting by Cassat at the age of 36.

Cassatt's precise depiction of details can be seen from the wrinkles of the hat and skirt. 


A painting after Cassatt suffered from cataracts. 

Compared with her earlier works, the color and details of this work are relatively limited.

Colors Missing: Red-Green Color Blindness

In the art world, many beautiful paintings have also been written by color-blind painters. 

Born in Suffolk, England, John Constebour (John Constable) is good at landscape painting, especially around his hometown. 

Some scholars believe that Constable was blind in red and green, and when he saw pink, red, or orange, he couldn't sense the red part, so he could only see the rest, i.e., the green and blue. 

As a result, in most of his paintings, only green, yellow and blue are used, while red seldom appears. 


Stratford Mill, 1831


Dedham Lock and Mills, 1820


The world in the eye of a Normal (left) and a Red-Green Color Blind (right) person.

Peter Milton (Peter Milton), a contemporary American painter, like Constable, was also red and green color blind. 

But for him, the lack of red opened the door to the world of black and white. Although he could still recognize green and blue, he decided to abandon all colors and paint only in black and white. 


Mary's Turn, 1994: the Mary in this painting is Mary Casat, mentioned earlier with cataracts. 

Fuzzy World: Macular Degeneration

Red-Green color blindness results from faulty light-sensitive cells. There is a relatively rare case of light-sensitive cells, Macular Degeneration, which blurs the vision or even leads to blindness. 

The retinal macula is one of the places where photoreceptors are found. It is also the most sensitive in the visual system. 

When light-sensitive cells in this area are dysfunctional, dead, or when blood vessels rupture and leave fragments in the macula, the patient's vision becomes blurred. 



Normal macular (left) and macular degeneration (right)


The world seen by patients with macular degeneration

Some scholars believe that the famous impressionist Edgar Degas (Edgar Degas) suffered from macular degeneration when he was young, and his vision worsened over the next 50 years. 

We can see the change in his eyesight from the increasingly blurred contours, lines, and obscurity of his later works. 


Paintings by Degas, aged 51 (left), 55 (center) and 65 (right). 

Terrible Cavity: Vitreous Hemorrhage

You must be familiar with Edward Monk (Edvard Munch) 's Scream. 

However, when you see the following self-portrait, you will shudder even more. 

Monk in the picture lay sadly in the hospital bed, with his eyes buried by the hands, and the dark blue skeleton foreign body stood out against the light background. 


This foreign body is not out of Monk's imagination, but an actual reflection of his fear, which results from his eye disease and fear of death. 

What kind of eye disease brings such great fear to Monk? 

It is vitreous hemorrhage, i.e., the bleeding in the vitreous body allows people to see an irregular net. A large amount of blood is disastrous to the eyesight. 

The vitreous body is between the retina and the lens. When the blood vessels in the retina or other parts of the eye rupture due to impact or other reasons, the blood will seep into the vitreous body, causing vitreous hemorrhage. 


A photo of vitreous hemorrhage from Summit Medical Group

In 1930, Monk, aged 66, found himself with the eye disease, with blood clots in a variety of shapes and spots in his sight, some like birds and some like concentric circles. 

He decided to paint the world he saw with a brush. 


Playing with Colors: Synesthesia 

The eye diseases mentioned earlier are caused by lesions in the eyes themselves. The disorders of cerebral cortex also cause visual abnormalities, such as synesthesia.

Synaesthesia refers to a sensory stimulus (such as hearing) that stimulates another sense (visual and olfactory, etc.) at the same time. 

For example, people with synesthesia will feel or see colors when they hear music, or smell different smells when they see a particular color.
Vassili Kandinsky, a Russian painter recognized as the founder of modern abstract painting, could sense colors while hearing sounds. 

Kandinsky was very sensitive to colors since he was young. He believed, "Color is the key, the eyes are chords, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively and causing vibrations in the soul."

After watching an opera, he said to his friends, "I see a lot of intricate colors, crazy, thick lines constantly emerging in front of me." 


Composition 7, 1913

For most people, eye disease is just a pure misfortune that causes inconvenience to life. 

To some extent, these visual anomalies and defects are also a kind of talent for artists. 

They gave Monet's water lilies an extra color, covered Degas's girls with fog and played Kandinsky's colorful chords. 

As Degas once said, "the look depends on the heart. It is those who are 'wrong' that make art."











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