Painting the World with Different Eyes

One of the gifts possessed by many great artists is a highly acute sensory perception. But what happens when their senses are blunted? Looking at the history of art from a medical perspective, these essays try to describe how prominent artists reacted to their failing sight and how this is reflected in their works.

Everyone has experienced how altered senses can influence the perception of the world: if you have a cold, food tastes bland because its flavours cannot reach the sensory cells in your blocked up nose; after an „ear deafening“ concert, sounds are more muffled – as if you are hearing them through a layer of cotton wool; if you open your eyes underwater, everything looks blurred because the water neutralises the ability of your cornea to refract incoming light and your lens alone is no longer able to focus the rays onto your retina.

Almost everyone experiences deterioration in eyesight as they grow older. This is because the ageing lens loses its elasticity and can no longer focus on nearby objects to produce a sharp picture on the retina. In old age some people also experience a clouding of the lens, a cataract, which can drastically impair vision. Such changes to the eyesight can also affect those who reproduce what they see in an artistic form – painters in particular. Are weaknesses and failings of their ageing eyes reflected in their pictures, for example in characteristic changes in their style? Intriguing questions, but to answer them isin many cases, very difficult. A different style is not necessarily the result of altered perception, but may be a deliberate decision by the artist. And in the case of artists whose eye problems were not accurately diagnosed, it is impossible to be certain whether and how their perception – and hence their artistic style – was based upon a „changed“ view of the world.

In some cases however, good documentation of the symptoms by doctors, friends, or the artists themselves allows an accurate assessment of the influence of changed senses on an artistic work. Four artists whose eye complaints are reflected in their pictures are described below: Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt, who looked through „clouded lenses“, Edgar Degas, who was troubled by „blind spots“ and Charles Meryon who was colour-blind.