Edgar Degas‘ fading vision

Edgar Degas‘ fading vision

Broad Daylight Becomes Agony

Edgar Degas (1834 to 1917), one of the most important artists of the 19th century, had unusually bad sight for an artist. Even at the age of 36, when he signed up voluntarily for military service, it turned out at test firings that he was not even able to properly see the target with his right eye. Several years later – from 1873 onwards – Degas no longer liked working outside because broad daylight was very unpleasant for him and he felt weak in blazing sunlight. Once, when he was painting at the water’s edge in the full sun, he was so badly affected that he was unable to work for almost three weeks. Finally he retreated increasingly frequently into his darkened studio and began wearing dark glasses. At the same time he noticed that a „blind spot“ had developed in the middle of his field of vision – the first clear sign of the serious eye disease which was later to force him to give up painting.

Unfortunately, only very few of the doctor’s reports on Degas‘ eye problems have survived. But it is possible to reconstruct the story of his illness from descriptions of the symptoms in his letters and from notes written down by his friends. For instance, in the 1880s Degas mentioned several times to his friend and colleague, the English painter Walter Sickert, that it was a struggle to paint when you could only see the area around the place you were painting and not the place itself. This description leaves little doubt that Degas was suffering from an affection of the macula, the area of the retina with the greatest visual acuity. Over the years the artist’s eye problems multiplied. The macula of both eyes was seriously damaged and Degas had lost his central field of vision. At the time he began to use pastels instead of oil with increasing frequency. Later he discovered that it was easier for him to paint subjects from photographs. Despite this his pictures become increasingly coarse and blurred and exhibit a clear loss of shape in comparison to his earlier works. With the increasing deterioration of his eyes his cross-hatching becomes wider and the strokes are no longer as close to each other.

In old age Degas also had difficulty recognising colours. Occasionally he asked his models to identify them for him. As a result, his later pastel works no longer show the graduated colour shades of earlier years. This supports the suspicion that he was suffering from a degeneration of the macula. In these diseases deviations often occur in the perception of colour. For example, people with macular degeneration frequently cannot see blue. In fact Degas‘ later work is dominated by red, whereas blue is used rarely. In addition, patients with macular disease tend to choose stronger colours because they perceive a colour’s intensity more weakly. The intense colours used by Degas in his later pictures could therefore be explained – at least in part – by his eye problems.

In the end, Degas‘ sight was so bad that he was forced to give up painting virtually completely from 1903 onwards and turned to sculpture instead. „Now I have to learn the craft of a blind man,“ a friend quotes him. An exaggeration on the part of Degas, who was rather prone to expressing himself in dramatic terms – he had after all previously shown a strong interest in sculptures.

His favourite model, Pauline, once wrote of him in her diaries: „Complaining about his fate, the old man tried to model me in plaster, measuring me over and over again with a pair of compasses, and I was frightened that he might stab me as a result of his poor eyesight.“ But Degas, who could be very moody, also used his poor eyesight very much to his advantage. For instance he used his eye problems as an excuse for not having to acknowledge people in the street. Edgar Degas died in 1917.

More information on the retina, the macula and macular diseases.