Cassatt (Cataracts, Diabetic Retinopathy)

Cezanne (Myopia)

Degas (Retinopathy)

El Greco (Astigmatism?)

Monet (Cataracts)

Rembrandt (Visual Aging)

Renoir (Myopia)

Van Gogh (Xanthopsia?)





(1834 - 1917)

Who was Edgar Degas?

Edgar 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.

In 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, and printmaking.


Degas' visual disorder: Retinopathy

Degas’ 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 one’s 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.

By 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.

By 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.

From 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.


Treatment: Occlusive/Corrective lenses

There 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.

Impact on art

Degas 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."

Compare 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.

Cassatt | Cézanne | Degas | El Greco | Monet | Rembrandt | Renoir | Van Gogh