It’s easy to assume that in order to create any form of art, one must have perfect eyesight so they can paint rich landscapes like Claude Monet or draw sketches like Leonardo da Vinci. However, it’s surprising to learn that several of the most famous artists of all time had vision impairments- even Monet and da Vinci themselves. Today, I will be sharing ten ways that vision impairment has influenced classic art by highlighting ten famous visually impaired artists throughout history, including those that have either been confirmed to have or highly likely to have different types of vision loss from a variety of conditions.
Leonardo da Vinci and intermittent exotropia
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian renaissance man in the 1400s and 1500s with many talents and research interests, which included painting, drawing, sculpting, and many more. After examining six of his works across three different techniques (drawing, painting, and sculptures), researchers noted that the eyes of the subject in each of his works turned outward. The eyes rest at an angle consistent with intermittent exotropia, meaning there were times where his eyes could present as normal and other times when one turned outward, leaving the vision in the other eye intact. Because of this condition, he saw people, places, and objects in 2D shapes, as if the world around him was a canvas come to life.
Source- Tyler, C. W. (2018, October 18). Evidence That Leonardo da Vinci Had Strabismus. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaophthalmology/article-abstract/2707245
Edgar Degas and retinopathy
Edgar Degas was a French artist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is one of the founders of the French Impressionist movement, with over half of his artistic pieces relating to dance. His eye condition was first noticed in 1870 while visiting his family home, when he noticed that he had trouble painting in the bright sunlight, likely as a result of photosensitivity. The central vision was primarily affected, causing many of his later paintings to appear blurry. His sister had similar vision loss and lost her sight completely in her 30s, so the condition is likely genetic.
Source- Karcioglu, Z. A. (2007). Did Edgar Degas Have an Inherited Retinal Degeneration? Ophthalmic Genetics, 28(2), 51-55. doi:10.1080/13816810701351313
Guercino and esotropia
Guercino was an Italian artist in the 1600s that used the Baroque art style in the over 200 paintings and altarpieces he created during his lifetime. He got the nickname Guercini from the Italian word for “squinte.” Tjis makes him one of the oldest confirmed vision impaired artists. His biographer says that he developed strabismus suddenly one night after he woke up to an “extremely loud and unusual noise” that resulted in his right eye permanently turning inwards, a condition known as esotropia. Many of his works showcase subjects with odd or unusual facial features much like his own unique features, a theme that is most prominent in his caricature drawings.
Source- Damen, G. (n.d.). Guercino Caricatures | Princeton University Art Museum. Retrieved from http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/story/guercino-caricatures
Auguste Renoir and myopia
Auguste Renoir was a French artist in the 1800s and early 1900s who was a member of the Impressionist movement and well known for portraits. He’s also recognized for having myopia (also known as nearsightedness), meaning he had difficulty seeing items that were far away. However, he did not have any known visual correction, preferring to embrace being an artist with vision impairment. He considered the condition to be an advantage when painting landscapes, since they looked perfectly blurred, an interesting contrast to his more detailed portraits.
Polland, W. (2004). Myopic artists. Acta Ophthalmologica Scandinavica,82(3p1), 325-326. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0420.2004.00252.x
Francis Bacon and dysmorphopsia
Francis Bacon was an Irish-born British artist from the 1900s. He would create surreal and creepy artwork. In interviews with art critics, he talks about how images appear to be constantly changing, almost like an optical illusion. His work features images with heavy distortion and abnormalities in face depiction. This runs consistent with dysmorphopsia, a brain condition that affects a person’s ability to perceive objects. The origin of his condition is unknown, but common causes include meningioma tumors, brain injury, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Source- Safran, A. B., Sanda, N., & Sahel, J.-A. (2014). A neurological disorder presumably underlies painter Francis Bacon distorted world depiction. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 581. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00581
Claude Monet and cataracts
Claude Monet was a French artist in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is one of the founders of French Impressionism. His most famous works depict nature and the passing of time. From 1912 to 1922, his vision steadily declined due to cataracts that affected his color perception and vision acuity. Colors often looked muddy and had a yellowish tone to them, which he found highly frustrating, though he didn’t want surgical treatment. Many of his paintings appear slightly blurry as a result of his failing vision. This is because that’s how he perceived the world around him.
Source- Marmor MF. Ophthalmology and Art: Simulation of Monet’s Cataracts and Degas’ Retinal Disease. Arch Ophthalmol. 2006;124(12):1764–1769. http://doi.org/10.1001/archopht.124.12.1764
Georgia O’Keeffe and macular degeneration
Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist in the 1900s. Her painting of flowers, New York skyscrapers, and landscapes of New Mexico are her most prominent works of art. She began experiencing symptoms of age-related macular degeneration in 1964, describing it as a cloud entering her eyeballs. As her vision declined, she enlisted assistants to help her in painting her work. However, she would not give them credit as she said their contributions were “equivalent of a palette knife.”
Source- The Vision and Art Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.visionandartproject.org/artist/georgia-okeeffe
Rembrandt van Rijn and stereoblindness
Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch artist in the 1600s. He is one of the greatest artists in history, with training as a printmaker, painter, and draftsman. Many of his self portraits show his eyes turning outwards, which would cause a lack of depth perception, or stereoblindness. In turn, this lack of depth perception contributed to monocular vision, meaning each eye sees differently. This was often viewed as an advantage as it meant he could easily notice details in his subject that his peers with binocular vision (meaning vision is the same in both eyes) might not catch.
Source- Livingstone, M. S., & Conway, B. R. (2004). Was Rembrandt Stereoblind? The New England Journal of Medicine, 351(12), 1264–1265. http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200409163511224
Mary Cassatt and diabetic retinopathy with cataracts
Mary Cassatt was an American artist in the 1800s and early 1900s who was a member of the Impressionist movement. Many of her paintings depict the public and private lives of women, with a special emphasis on mothers with children. Her art received praise from Edgar Degas. She was also the only American artist to participate in Impressionist exhibits.
At the age of 56, she began to lose her sight, describing it as growing dimmer and dimmer. Her diagnosis was determined to be cataracts and diabetic retinopathy over a decade later. In many letters, she expressed resentment over her vision impairment, believing that it limited her as an artist. She switched from using oil paintings to pastels, favored large canvases over smaller ones, and started to draw more bold lines in her work instead of intricate details. She also used fewer colors due to her color vision deteriorating.
Source- CASSATT, MARY (1844 – 1926). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://psyc.ucalgary.ca/PACE/VA-Lab/AVDE-Website/cassatt.html
Pablo Picasso and strabismus
Pablo Picasso was a Spanish artist in the late 1800s and most of the 1900s who worked in a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpting, printmaking, ceramics, and more. He lived in France for a large part of his adult life and is credited with helping to found the Cubist movement. Some researchers believe that his interest in Cubist painting stemmed from his lack of depth perception- he preferred to show off his skills in shading, perspective, and occlusion whenever possible in his 2D works.
Source- The nerve blog. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sites.bu.edu/ombs/2012/02/21/inside-the-mind-of-creative-geniuses/
After learning about how vision impairment affected each of these ten prominent visually impaired artists, it’s evident that having vision loss is not always a bad thing. It can be used to capture unique beauty and details that may otherwise go unseen. By knowing about these eye conditions, people can view the world through the eyes of their favorite artist- whether that be with crossed eyes, blurred eyes, or in another way entirely.