Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Monet’s Cataracts, Re-examined

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Claude Monet’s world began to go dark. The impressionist painter had experienced problems with his eyesight before: as early as 1867, a young Monet found that his penchant for painting outdoors, in full sun, strained his eyes to the point where he worried he would go blind.[1] Now, some forty years later, he was developing cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens that can cause blurring and color distortion. Hoping to avoid an operation, in part due to his fear that it would drastically and permanently alter his way of seeing, Monet started taking eye drops for his condition in 1912 (Mount, Monet, 379). However, about a decade later, he finally relented and agreed to surgery. He in fact had three surgeries within six months, with his recovery from the second requiring that he remain in the dark, immobilized by sandbags, for several days (Wildenstein, Monet, 549–56). These surgeries, along with a pair of special cataract glasses, did provide Monet with somewhat clearer vision. Yet strained sight still dominated the final years of his life, so much so that C. M. Mount devotes the final chapter of his biography of Monet to the painter’s struggle to finish his grand Nymphéas—the massive panels of water lilies that hang in the Musée de l'Orangerie—before descending into a total fog (Mount, Monet, 377–94).

Given the dramatic nature of these events, it’s perhaps not surprising that Monet’s dimming vision has had a certain purchase on the popular imagination. Indeed, when I tell someone that I’ve been writing about the relationship between bad eyesight and modern art and literature, they usually already have a sense that impressionism is linked to poor vision on some level. Monet was practically blind, wasn’t he? Didn’t the impressionists actually see the way they painted? Such associations have been forged through four decades of scientific writing on the impressionists’ eyesight. These ophthalmologic studies, which I will discuss in greater detail below, typically seek to demonstrate that impressionism in general—and the abstraction of late Monet in particular—was less the product of artistic innovation and more the result of bad eyesight. Scholars of disability studies and the medical humanities might rightly look to this longstanding medical investigation of Monet and the other impressionists as an intriguing confluence of art and science. But they should also be aware of the apparent desire in these studies to neatly partition artistic experimentation from disability—that is, to distinguish deliberate stylistic decisions from the pathological effects of cataracts or other eye conditions. So my intention here is to re-examine how we’ve come to see Monet’s sight, with the ultimate aim of suggesting that bad vision was not an impediment to the painter’s project but rather a central component of it.

The first study on Monet’s cataracts written in English was conducted by James G. Ravin, M.D. and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1985.[2] Drawing on the letters between Monet and his surgeon, Ravin is able to more accurately describe Monet’s condition: that he began suffering from distortion, primarily in his right eye, as early as 1908, and that he struggled with color perception (especially with cool colors like blue) throughout much of the next decade (“Monet’s Cataracts,” 394). Additionally, he details Monet’s experience of his surgeries—how, for instance, Monet was extremely discouraged after the removal of the cataract in his right eye because his posterior capsule had then become opaque (a common complication the surgeon had expected) (396–97). An examination of Monet’s glasses in this article also reveals how a “yellow-green tint” was used to correct the overabundance of blues the painter perceived post-operation (398). Yet perhaps most interestingly, Ravin takes advantage of Monet’s tendency to repeatedly paint the same scenes to compare his early and late paintings—like a turn-of-the-century version of The Japanese Bridge and another from the mid-1920s (figs. 1 and 2). This prompts him to speculate as to how Monet’s worsening condition led to the changes in both coloration and brush stroke that culminated in the “vague scenes of his old age” that are “now generally considered to be a link to the abstract art of the 20th century” (399).

Fig. 1. Claude Monet, Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny, 1899. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection, 1963, 1963-116-11.
Fig. 2. Claude Monet, The Japanese Bridge, c. 1923–1925. Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan. 61.36.15.

Ravin is quite reserved when it comes to the implications that can be drawn from examining Monet’s paintings in this way. In a subsequent study that positions Monet alongside Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, and Camille Pissarro, he cautions: “These examples neither imply that such movements as French Impressionism were due to eye disease, nor mean that this was the only period when ocular disease exerted an important effect on artists. It is merely a curious fact that these four contemporaries shared more than an artistic style.”[3] However, other researchers have been much bolder in their assertions. In considering why Monet shifted his later style, David B. Elliott and Amanda Skaff declare that “It seems very probable that Monet’s ‘fogged’ vision and altered colour perception caused his style to change.” [4] At one point they also conclude: “The whole Impressionist group might have been a conspiracy of people with poor eyesight” (Elliott and Skaff, “Vision,” 87). Taking suggestions like this last one for granted, later studies have adopted specialized techniques in trying to further diagnose Monet. One team of researchers conducted a genetic study on one of the artist’s relatives to find that Monet likely had myotonic dystrophy, which produces a specific type of cataract: “Initially, these consist of punctate, iridescent, white, and/or multicoloured opacities, especially in the posterior subcapsular region, sparing the central portion of the lens, progressing to rosette-type cataracts with radiating spokes, and to the reticulation of the lens cortex.”[5] Another study by Michael F. Marmor, M.D. even makes use of computer simulation to mimic the effect of cataracts (adding fog and tinting to Monet’s paintings) and thus attempts to reconstruct what it looks like “when we look through Monet’s eyes.”[6]

While these studies are highly detailed in their scrutiny of Monet’s sight, they also possess their own sort of restricted vision, which in this case arises from their effort to completely medicalize impressionist aesthetics. Indeed, it’s worth noting that an important part of Monet’s story has to do with resisting a medical model of disability that desires only to see differences in visual ability as problems to be cured. Lisel Mueller captures something of this resistance in her poem, “Monet Refuses the Operation,” which imagines a scene where the painter tries to convince his doctor that his sight, though impaired, is thoroughly intertwined with his art:

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.[7]

This accords with Monet’s own feeling at certain times in his life that his cataracts could provide him with an especially artistic way of seeing. In 1922, before his operation, he wrote to a friend, “My poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey.”[8] Quite differently, most of the contemporary research on Monet’s sight is tinged with a medicalized view that simply eschews aesthetics in endeavoring to identify and inspect its subject with as much precision as possible—and so these studies dissect the painter’s eye or sequence his DNA. Applied to art or literature, this aggressively medical perspective becomes a form of interpretation that we could call diagnostic reading: as diagnostic readers, the researchers referred to above observe Monet’s paintings not to comment on their potential meaning or meanings but instead to reflect back onto Monet himself. The paintings merely provide evidence that these researchers use to assess Monet’s physical condition. They serve as elaborate eye charts used in diagnosing the painter’s body.

There are several problems with this way of looking at Monet’s painting. One is the line—or “edge”—many of these studies attempt to draw between the paintings Monet did before his cataracts and those he did after. Exemplifying this tendency, one researcher states, in observing the less precise imagery of Monet’s later painting, that “it seems unlikely that he had adopted or espoused his broader style from 1919 to 1922 entirely by free choice or that he was entirely pleased with it” (Marmor, “Ophthalmology and Art,” 1769). Another similarly claims, “It is therefore unlikely that he had intentionally adopted the broader and more abstract style of his late paintings, reinforcing the argument that Monet’s late works were the result of cataracts and not conscious experimentation with a more expressionistic style.”[9] The implication behind such statements is that there is an earlier, true impressionist style that Monet had intentionally produced and a later, false one over which he had no control. In readings like these, the distinction between early and late Monet—which is to say healthy and impaired Monet—is also buttressed by another division that has to do with representational modes. More specifically, the pathologization of Monet’s later paintings is linked to the idea that these works replace a more realistic or naturalistic representation with abstraction: they suffer from a “loss of detail” in being “more abstract and formless” (Elliott and Skaff, “Vision,” 89). But we should note that this formula only grants healthy bodies access to what we call “realism” while aligning disability with a frustrating form of abstraction—which is why Monet’s later paintings come out looking all wrong here.

To the extent that these readings wish to explain away the effects of these late paintings, they ignore what is perhaps the most compelling lesson of Monet’s art: that the lines between things are often blurry. In a basic sense, the divide between early and late, healthy and impaired Monet begins to break down once we remember that his eye problems began as early as 1867. Even more importantly, though, it becomes much harder to view the later paintings as an unintentional effect of his cataracts after considering the ways that impressionism has always been about the difficulty—the frailty even—of our vision. Of course, there are many ways to theorize the impressionist style.[10] But focusing on Monet’s extended struggles with his sight highlights how impressionism can be understood as a record of visual impairment. This is not to say, as the popular conversation around Monet suggests, that impressionism is just or merely the result of bad eyesight, which implies that these paintings are failed attempts at rendering a clear image. Instead, it is to reflect on Monet’s blurry paintings as suggestions of the contingent and ephemeral nature of sight, not as the idiosyncratic vision of a single artist, but as a broader human condition. (Alix Beeston has argued previously in this forum that the “blur” is a visual form that conjures “seeing’s limits” in modernism.) As ophthalmologists have noted, everyone experiences the degradation of vision with age.[11] The impressionist project insists that the cloudiness, blurriness, and bleeding colors that accompany this change and other experiences of impairment are as much a part of human vision as sharpness, distinction, and definition. Gesturing at this fuller spectrum of sight, Monet’s early works used soft brushstrokes and hazy lines to push back against the impossible clarity of much nineteenth-century painting. His later painting, with its unexpected coloration and indistinct forms (fig. 3), then made misprision a focal point. In this way, these more abstract paintings are not at all separate from the earlier ones; they are the culmination of them.

Impressionist abstract in multiple colors
Fig. 3. Claude Monet (1840–1926), The Path under the Rose Arches, Giverny, 1920–1922. Oil on canvas, 89 × 100 cm. Michel Monet bequest, 1966. Inv. 5089. Paris, musée Marmottan Monet. © musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Studio C. Baraja SLB.

My current work takes observations like this last one—that Monet arrives at what we have come to understand as modern “abstraction” through the fogged vision of his final years—as a starting point for exploring the way bad vision triggered the styles and forms we now associate with modern aesthetics. This work is not especially interested in diagnosing the artists and writers who incorporated bad vision into their artistic practice—nor does it draw too strict a line between particular visual impairments and their corresponding stylistic effects. However, building on disability theory’s impulse to see the impaired body as a “unique resource” for modern aesthetics, it considers how the embrace of bad vision can be artistically generative in providing these artists and writers a means of contesting “proper” or “correct” frameworks of seeing.[12] Monet’s cataract paintings provide a glimpse into this process and the tensions that surround it, illustrating as they do just one of the ways that “high” art was made out of “low” vision.



[1] See the descriptions of this episode in Charles Merrill Mount, Monet: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 145; and Daniel Wildenstein, Monet: or, the Triumph of Impressionism (Cologne: Taschen, 2015), 84. The same problem recurred at least once more, in 1888. See Wildenstein, 298.

[2] James G. Ravin, MD, “Monet’s Cataracts,” Journal of the American Medical Association 254.3 (July 19, 1985): 394–99. A slightly earlier study appeared in French: P.G. Moreau, “La Cataracte de Claude Monet,” L’Ophthalmologie des origins a nos jours 3 (1981): 141.

[3] James G. Ravin, M.D., “Eye Disease among the Impressionists: Monet, Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro, Journal of Ophthalmic Nursing & Technology 13.5 (1993): 217–22, 217.

[4] David B. Elliott and Amanda Skaff, “Vision of the Famous: The Artist’s Eye,” Ophthalmologic & Physiological Optics 13 (January 1993): 82–90, 84.

[5] Russell Lane, Nessay Carey, Richard Orrell, and Richard T Moxley III, “Claude Monet’s Vision,” The Lancet 349 (March 8, 1997): 734. The other implication here is that Monet began experiencing the formation of this cataract as early as age thirty, suggesting that his early symptoms were part of the same progressive condition. This view, as far as I can tell, has not been widely adopted in the research about Monet’s eyesight.

[6] Michael F. Marmor, MD, “Ophthalmology and Art: Simulation of Monet’s Cataracts and Degas’ Retinal Disease,” Arch Ophthalmol. 124.12 (2006): 1764–69, 1768. The findings of this article were widely reported in various news outlets, including The New York Times and Live Science.

[7] Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation,” in Second Language (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 59.

[8] Letter to G. or J. Bernheim-Jeune, August 11, 1922, cited in Richard Kendall, Monet by Himself (London: Macdonald Orbis, 1989), 259.

[9] Anna Gruener, “The Effects of Cataract Surgery on Claude Monet,” British Journal of General Practice 65.634 (May 2015): 255.

[10] For a discussion of impressionism as an effort to capture light, see Anthea Callen, “Making Light Modern,” in The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique & the Making of Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 111–35; on impressionism as a philosophy of time, see Moshe Barasch, “Impressionism and the Philosophical Culture of Time,” in Modern Theories of Art, vol. 2 (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 24–33; and for impressionism as a specific method of applying color, see Mount, Monet, 301–6.

[11] Presbyopia, or the blurring of near vision, affects everyone to some degree by middle age. See Elliott and Skaff, “Vision,” 82. The aging process also brings on a host of other eye conditions related to “low vision.” For more, see “Aging and Your Eyes,” National Institute of Health.

[12] Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 2–3.