Oscar-Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a founder of French Impressionist painting. The term “Impressionism” is derived from the title of his painting Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise). He was also one of many famous painters who suffered from bad eyesight, this list includes: Paul Cezanne, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, El Greco, August Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh. It is well known that all of these artists where facing a decline in their vision just as they reached their heights of artistic achievement.
Although Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes in 1912, at the age of 72, his visual problems began much earlier. Soon after 1905 (age 65) he began to experience changes in his perception of colour.
Monet wrote of his growing frustration with his deteriorating vision, describing how he was forced to memorize where the colours were placed on his palette. He also had to rely on reading the labels on the tubes of paint. In 1914 he wrote in his correspondence that colours no longer had the same intensity. “Reds had begun to look muddy,” he wrote. “My painting was getting more and more darkened.”
Monet sought help from many ophthalmologists including the French ophthalmologist Charles Coutela, M.D, who prescribed eye drops, and cataract surgery when Monet was 82.
Coutela also fitted Monet with spectacles designed for cataracts which allowed Monet to read and continue his correspondence.
Monet’s great sensitivity to detail, light and colour was central to his early works. His later works are typified by indistinct coloration, large brush strokes, and an absence of light blues. The sense of atmosphere and light that he was famous for presenting in his earlier works had disappeared.
Monet attributed this to the effects of the cataracts. He wrote, “in the end I was forced to recognize that I was spoiling them [the paintings], that I was no longer capable of doing anything good. So I destroyed several of my panels. Now I’m almost blind and I’m having to abandon work altogether. It’s hard but that’s the way it is: a sad end despite my good health!” – letter to Marc Elder, May 8, 1922, Giverny.