Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt

A lesser-known example of the influence of cataracts is the work of the American painter Mary Cassatt (1844 to 1926). She is often classed as an Impressionist, but her main subjects are not the characteristic landscapes or outdoor subjects, but domestic scenes. Before Cassatt developed serious eye problems, her paintings were carefully composed and were characterised by fine brush strokes. Her problems started in about 1900. At the age of 68, in 1912, the same year as Monet, she was also diagnosed as having cataracts in both eyes. Due to the increasing clouding of the lenses she was soon no longer able to paint as delicately and in as great detail as she had in her younger years. Her later paintings are characterised by garish, hard colours, her brush strokes lose their softness and are coarser. Like Edgar Degas, with whom she was friends, she worked increasingly with pastels following the onset of her eye disease, but found that they were not as expressive as the oils she had previously used.

Mary Cassatt’s later pictures are painted with broad, rough strokes on large sheets of paper – presumably to even out the effects of the cataracts. Like Monet’s later works, they show significantly fewer details and lack shades of colour. The artist was no longer able to achieve the delicacy of her earlier works. In 1915 Cassatt’s vision was so severely impaired by the cataracts that, deeply disappointed by her misfortune, she stopped working. Operations on her right eye in 1917 and her left in 1919 failed to bring back her earlier sight and her vision remained very poor. She continued to have several operations after these, but despite all attempts to save her eyes, the artist was not even able to read after 1918. She died in 1926 – in the same year as Claude Monet.

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

Scenes with mother and child are typical of Mary Cassatt’s work. The bathing child of 1891 (left) is a carefully painted picture of a mother with her child. The pastel painted around 1900 (right) already shows the first signs of the artist’s deteriorating eyesight.

The brush strokes are less precise and the picture is not as rich in detail as earlier works.

The self-portrait shows Cassatt in about 1878.