(1834 - 1917)
was Edgar Degas?
Degas was born in Paris in 1834 and died in 1917 at the
age of 83. As a child, Degas was given a strict classical
education at the Lycée Louis le Grand. Degas' father
was a banker with strong inclinations towards the arts,
and he taught his son to appreciate art, music, and to express
himself in a variety of forms. Edgar was an active correspondent
and kept a detailed personal notebook, leaving a comprehensive
account of his life and outlook. After beginning the study
of law he abandoned it in 1855 to pursue a career in art.
1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard to help defend
Paris against the Prussian invasion in the Franco-Prussian
war. Shortly after, in 1872, he traveled with his brother
René De Gas, to America, where he spent time in New
Orleans. There is a great deal of work depicting his time
in New Orleans, including scenes of local society, the life
of his family, and the antics of his cousins. One of the
more famous works from this time period is The Cotton
Office, New Orleans, painted around 1872-1873 (right).
Upon his return to Paris, in 1874, Degas was one of the
founding organizers of the first Impressionist exhibition.
Other painters that he associated with were his good friend,
Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Paul Gaugin.
His work was relatively well-received despite intense public
scrutiny of the Impressionist school. Degas is best known
for his work depicting the ballet and the opera. Like Cassatt,
and in contrast to Monet and Renoir, Degas emphasized line
and form in his work, rather than atmosphere and light.
Later in his life he also experimented with sculpture, photography,
visual disorder: Retinopathy
visual decline began at age 36, shortly after
enlisting in the National Guard during the Franco Prussion war, due apparently to
a form of retinopathy. He attributed his problems
to the cold weather he experienced during guard duty, and
to the bright sunlight to which he was later exposed during
his time in Louisiana. Degas found bright lights intolerable
and was forced to work indoors in a controlled environment.
The theatre was conducive to his glare problems,
and his paintings of the ballet and the opera remain his
most famous works.
It was during his time in New Orleans that Degas realized
that his right eye was permanently damaged. "What
lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the
bright daylight were less unbearable for me. To go to Louisiana
to open ones eyes, I cannot do that. And yet I kept
them sufficiently half open to see my fill." letter to his friend, James Tissot, 18 February, 1873. Continuing
to be troubled by glare, overly bright conditions would
force Degas to rest his eyes for weeks at a time. "I
have just had and still have a spot of weakness and trouble
in my eyes. It caught me at Chateau by the edge of the water
in full sunlight whilst I was doing a water-colour and it
made me lose nearly three-weeks being unable to read or
work or go out much, trembling all the time lest I should
remain like that." letter to James Tissot,
30 September, 1871, Paris.
age 39, Degas had bitterly accepted his visual difficulties.
He believed blindness was imminent, a particularily daunting
prospect for a painter. He wrote, "My eyes are fairly
well but all the same I shall remain in the ranks of the
infirm until I pass into the ranks of the blind. It is really
bitter, is it not? Sometimes I feel a shiver of horror."
letter to James Tissot, 1873, Paris. Degas was able
to continue painting, but was forced to limit the time he
spent at work. "My eyes are very bad. The oculist
has allowed me to work just a little until I send in my
pictures. I do so with much difficulty and the greatest
sadness." letter to Tissot, 1874, Paris.
his forties, Degas developed a loss of central vision. Painting
became even more difficult, as he was forced to paint around
this scotoma. Later on, Degas had problems identifying colors
and asked his models to identify the colors of his media.
His vision became progressively worse, and by 1891, at age
57, he could no longer read. "I see even worse this
winter, I do not even read the newspapers a little; it is
Zoé, my maid, who reads to me during lunch. Whereas
you, in your rue Sadolet in your solitude, have the joy
of having your eyes
Ah! Sight! Sight! Sight!
the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb."
letter to friend, Evariste de Valernes, Paris, 6 July, 1891.
1870 until his death in 1917, Degas sought the advice of
a number of different ophthalmologists. Many theories have
been put forward regarding the nature of his problem, including
retinal disease, hereditary degeneration, corneal scarring
and age-related macular degeneration (ARM). He was diagnosed
with "chorioretinitis", a term then used commonly
to describe a variety of eye conditions. Degas difficulty
in distinguishing colours, sensitivity to light, and scotoma
all point to some sort of retinal disease. It is not clear
whether his retinopathy was acquired or inherited.
was no treatment for retinal disease during Degas
lifetime. To treat his symptoms, he was given a series of
spectacles that varied from no power to a mild correction
for myopia and astigmatism. The prime purpose of all of
these seemed to occlude light from his badly damaged right
eye by means of a tint or a slit. He did not adjust very
well to these spectacles. "You will see me with
a comparatively ominous looking contraption over my eyes.
They are trying to improve my sight by screening the right
eye and only allowing the left one to see through a small
slit. Things are fairly all right for getting around, but
I cannot get accustomed to it for working."
letter to friend, Evariste de Valernes, Paris, 1892.
never specifically described the impact of his vision on
his art. As his eyes worsened, Degas changed media from
oils to pastels, which are looser and easier to work with,
dry slowly, and require less precision. Difficulties in
color differentiation may have contributed to the bold coloration
of Degas later works. A decline in contrast sensitivity
and acuity is demonstrated in the progressively wider strokes
evident in his later works. Degas retinopathy also
accounted for his move into sculpture, printmaking, and
photography. While some of the changes in his work may be
attributable to stylistic changes and personal development,
his changing vision almost certainly played a role. It is
possible that some of Degas' greatness as an artist is attributable
to his visual loss. Renoir, for example, said of Degas:
"Had he died at 50, he would have been remembered
as a good, competent artist, nothing more."
the oil painting below (left), painted when Degas was 31,
to the pastel below (right), created at age 56. The fine
detail in A Woman with Chrysanthemums is absent from
Two Dancers. In the latter, the range of color is
limited, and strokes are loose and wide.
| Cézanne | Degas
| El Greco | Monet
| Renoir | Van