Edgar Degas, the 19th century master associated with the great early Impressionists, suffered from a serious eye condition that almost certainly affected his paintings.
The claim is made in the current issue of The Burlington Magazine, the art historians journal, by Richard Kendall of Manchester Polytechnic, who has studied more than 100 paintings, drawings or photographs of Degas' facial features.Kendall has also scoured Degas' letters and those of his friends for any mention of his eye problems and has tracked down a pair of the painter's spectacles.
His conclusion is that, from his mid-30s onward, Degas had no fewer than four disabilities: myopia, irregular astigmatism, blind spot and amblyopia (a divergent squint that led to monocular vision). Degas' squint can even be seen in his self-portrait.
Kendall says the painter's faulty eyes tended to determine his subject matter.
Degas, for example, is perhaps best known for his scenes of ballet dancers and horse racing both activities where it was acceptable for spectators to carry binoculars. His paintings also contain a large number of incomplete figures cut off by the edge of the canvas. Degas, in turn, had partial vision for the last half of his life.
And because of his aversion to bright light, Degas avoided outdoor painting after his early years but concentrated instead on compositions that could be artfully contrived in a (usually) darkened studio.
And he painted pictures of people in close-up and from a variety of unusual standpoints: In his day, it was considered very adventurous to portray bathing women from above or ballet dancers seen from the side of the stage.
Kendall now proposes a wider study of the eyesight of other Impressionists, including Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne and Whistler, to see whether eyesight played a significant role among other Impressionists.