When Claude Monet was in his 60s, his eyesight began to fail, the result of cataracts developing in both of his eyes. It got so bad he had to label his paint tubes – he could no longer see color properly. Critics argued over whether the wilder, browner, sometimes jarring colors and mark-making of Monet’s later paintings were intentional.
Claude Monet, Le Saule pleureur (1920-22) Musée d’Orsay, donation Philippe Meyer, 2000, Photograph copyright RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) : Michèle Bellot.
In a peer-reviewed paper published in 2015 by the British Journal General Practice, London ophthalmologist Anna Gruener convincingly settled the question. During periods of successfully restored eyesight between medical treatments, she noted, when Monet could actually see what he had been painting, he destroyed as many of those canvases as friends and dealers were unable to rescue.
“Monet’s late works were the result of cataracts and not conscious experimentation with a more expressionistic style,” Gruner wrote. “Nonetheless, it is his late works, created under the influence of his cataracts, that link impressionism with modern abstract art.”
That’s the paradox – the same applies to Turner. The radical works, the late paintings that depart the most from previous conventions, have the most influence on future artists, but they only happen when painting’s primary physical tool – the painter’s eyesight – forces the artist’s hand.
For 20 years Monet went back and forth with various eye doctors, trying drops and new fangled glasses that worked for a little while then stopped working. Increasingly despondent and unproductive, Monet refused to have surgery done on his eyes; he’d seen cataract operations fail for two of his friends, Honore Daumier and Mary Cassatt.
“I prefer to make the most of my poor sight, and even give up painting if necessary,” he wrote to his friend, Georges Clemenceau, the former prime minister of France and also a physician, “but at least be able to see a little of these things that I love.”
Although Monet did finally have successful eye surgery in 1923, in the poem Monet Refuses the Operation, poet Lisel Mueller revisits Monet’s reluctance. She re-imagines it as a passionate response to any artist’s gift of seeing beyond the surface of things to the spiritual essences within and beyond them. The poem is occasionally taught in schools throughout the U.S.
Monet Refuses the Operation
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, West Face in Sunlight
My name is Christopher Volpe. I’m an artist, writer, teacher and the editor of INSIDE ART.
My first love was literature, and I taught and wrote professionally until a chance assignment to teach art history introduced me to American oil painting. I bought a set of paints and didn't look back, and though I’ve spent the last ten years as a professional artist, I’m still exploring and discovering new mediums, techniques, and creative approaches to making and looking at art.