Claude Monet’s clouded lenses

Claude Monet’s clouded lenses

One of the best known example of how changed vision influences the work of an artist is the case of the French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840 to 1926). Because Monet had a habit of painting the same subject over and over again, decade after decade, representations of a subject at different periods of his life can be compared. Monet reached the grand old age – in those days – of 86. Because of this, his cataracts were able to develop to such an extent that they severely impaired his vision. Moreover, Monet’s eye complaint has been documented extensively. And there is a clear difference between the pictures he painted at the end of the 19th century and those which were painted around 1920, towards the end of his life. However, these changes in artistic style did not take place rapidly but appeared gradually.

Monet himself first noticed that his eyes were changing during a trip to Venice in 1908. The nigh-on seventy year-old was experiencing difficulty in selecting his colours – a first sign that yellowing lenses were distorting his perception of colour. On the other hand Monet was at this stage still able to reproduce shapes precisely. Several years later, the discolouring of his lenses was compounded by the development of cataracts. This is the time at which there was a noticeable change in Monet’s style of painting. In contrast to his earlier pictures, many of his later works have fewer details. This is evident when looking at these later pictures close up. Over the course of the years, the shapes become increasingly blurred.

As early as 1912, Monet’s doctor diagnosed a cataract in both eyes and recommended intervention. But the artist was afraid of having an eye operation and postponed it for many years. In 1918 a journalist summed up what Monet had been experiencing since 1912 when painting and looking at his pictures: He did not perceive colours as intensively as before, which initially made him chose significantly stronger hues of blue and green shades as the weaker shades were filtered out by the yellowy cataracts. Red shades appeared dirty to him, pink insipid and he found it hard to differentiate between similar colours. Monet saw his painting as getting „increasingly darker“. When he compared his later pictures with earlier works he was seized by a towering rage and a desire to destroy every one of them.

With time, Monet realised that he saw better if he stood at a distance from the canvas. He continued to work, but was no longer able to paint in daylight as the cataracts dispersed the light too much. Bright sunlight in particular blinded him, so he stopped painting over midday. To avoid mistakes in colouring, he carefully read the labels on the tubes and always put the colours on the same place on his pallet. In this way he tried to find the „right“ colours for his subject, with the aid of his vast experience as a painter.

Despite these efforts to compensate for his altered perception, Monet was frequently dissatisfied with his choice of colour. The yellowish brown cataracts that he looked through filtered out violet, blue and some green shades. His paintings from this time contain few of these colours. In their place yellow, red and brown predominate. Towards the end of his life, Claude Monet may well have compensated for the loss of detail that occurred later with the oversize format of his pictures, such as his water lily series.

With increasing age, Monet’s sight deteriorated more and more. His paintings of the water lily pond, the Japanese Bridge or the flower gates in his garden in Giverny from the years between 1918 and 1922 reveal a dramatic loss of shape. The cataracts had almost completely robbed Monet of the ability to recognise shapes. So it was that in 1922 he wrote that he was no longer able to create anything of beauty, that he had destroyed some of his pictures, was almost blind and would have to stop painting.

In September 1922, Monet’s doctor ascertained that the artist’s vision was extremely limited. With his right eye, Monet was now only able to detect light and the direction from which it came; with his left eye he could only see about ten percent of what a person with normal vision sees. But it was only in January 1923, at the age of 83, that he had cataract surgery to his right eye. A complication plagued him for months, and he was unable to paint. He thought that he would be blind for the rest of his life. Another operation in July 1923 improved his vision. After that Monet had to get used to a pair of glasses fitted with cataract lenses. As only one eye had been operated on, he could not use both eyes at the same time with the new glasses. His left eye was still clouded by the thick yellowish-brown cataract, so his perception of colours with both eyes was different.

Cold Shades after the Operation

Monet did not cope well with the new glasses. He complained that he saw things double and distorted close up and in the distance, and that colours appeared peculiar. Patients with formerly yellowed lenses frequently report strange colour perceptions following a cataract operation. After the operation they perceive colours as being brighter, and blue shades as being darker and more intensive. Many even describe the „new“ colours as being unpleasantly cold and yearn for the warm red and brown shades of the world before their operation. It was only in 1925 that Monet found suitable glasses. He was delighted with the result and wrote that he could see well again and would work hard. At last he was also satisfied with his pictures again. Unfortunately his happiness was to be of short duration: Claude Monet died on 5th December 1926 in his house in Giverny.

More information on cataracts, why the lens is normally transparent and what happens when it becomes clouded.