by Zeynel A. Karcioglu, MD and
David A. Eliason, MD
Department of Ophthalmology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the eminent French painter, struggled throughout much of his life with a serious eye ailment that affected his art and personality in many ways. While Degas was in his thirties, he lost the central vision and light sensitivity in his right eye. His left eye would be similarly affected a few years later.
The artist’s mother belonged to a respectable Creole family in New Orleans. When Degas visited the family in America in the early 1870s, he complained that his sight had suffered considerably and blamed the bright New Orleans sun, saying, “The light is so strong that I have not yet been able to do anything on the River.” Indeed, all of the paintings created during that trip were done indoors where the light was less bright.
Degas’s first cousin (his mother’s brother’s daughter) in New Orleans had similarly lost vision in both eyes at about the same age. This family history, coupled with his increasing sensitivity to light and the gradually diminishing vision of his left eye, caused a deep and unrelenting fear of blindness that Degas carried throughout his life. He complained bitterly of sensitivity to light, always fearing that continued sun exposure would cause him to lose the little vision he had remaining. Sadly, this angst proved well-founded as he descended into blindness several years before his death in 1917.
Although no medical records, in a modern sense, exist to document the artist’s visual deterioration or the details of his multiple consultations with physicians, it is widely believed that no treatments were ever attempted given the course of his visual decline. A century later, experts speculate that Degas and his cousin Estelle Musson had a hereditary retinal degeneration primarily affecting their central vision. The most likely cause of their eye disease is an ABCA4-associated retinal disorder that is responsible for approximately one-third of autosomal recessive cone-rod dystrophies. This knowledge offers insight into several aspects of the artist’s career.
Edgar Degas aligned himself with the fledgling Impressionists of Paris early in his life, but he rejected their obsession with outdoor painting. Instead, he worked almost exclusively in a studio. He preferred the dim illumination of the indoors, particularly during the last three decades of his life. When he moved to a new studio in Paris, he told his close friend, Daniel Halevy how good his eyes felt under the soft, restful light. Visitors repeatedly reported that Degas favored shadowy lighting in his studio, and that he partially covered his large windows with dark curtains, insisting that the glass remain dirty and the workplace not be dusted.
Even within the studio, he used models sparingly, often relying on his imagination and, in his later days, on photography to embellish his work. As he aged, Degas employed broader brush strokes with ever-larger intervening spaces between them as his paintings became more abstract. In addition to this added coarseness in his work, Degas eventually abandoned oils and turned to pastels, thus avoiding the need to mix his own colors, which likely became increasingly difficult as his vision deteriorated.
Degas used sculpture throughout his career as a private medium, akin to notes, drafts, diagrams, or sketches, to support his main projects. This is probably why his table sculptures are linked to the same range of subjects that fascinated him in his painting: ballerinas, horses, and bathing women, for example. Others claim that Degas increasingly turned to sculpture, in the same way he used photography, because his vision became much worse in his advanced years. Using photography, and possibly sculpture, enabled the artist to render more authentically some of the poses that were too demanding for models to hold for more than a few minutes (Figure A).
In his later life, Degas became gloomy, secluded, and suffered bouts of depression, possibly as a consequence of his increasing blindness. While he was trying to adapt to his deteriorating vision, he produced unusual sculptures and, in one unexpected instance, a monotype of a countryside scene with no figures (Figure B).
Degas once remarked, “It is all very well to copy what you see, but how much better to draw only what the memory sees. Then you get a transformation, in which imagination works hand in hand with memory and you reproduce only what has particularly struck you—in other words, essentials. In this way your memories and your fancy are freed from nature’s tyranny.” How fascinating that an artist, especially one associated with the Impressionist movement, would refer to reality as ‘nature’s tyranny.’ But Degas indeed faced the malice of nature as his vision was conspicuously stolen over the course of his lifetime.
These visual difficulties might explain much of the artist’s troubled, cantankerous character. The severe mental anguish of knowing he was going blind and the frantic realization that, as an artist, the reality he hoped to capture in his work was slowly receding from his grasp and would eventually be irretrievable must have weighed on him terribly. Though Degas’s retinal disease undoubtedly affected his life and his art, it could not prevent him from being one of the most admired painters of all times.
(A) Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, casted in plaster by Edgar Degas, (Circa 1900).
(B) Landscape with merging pale colors, almost like an abstract painting, monotype, (1890–92).