The Weekly Petri: Monet Through a Medical Lens

by RACHAEL HANLY & LUANA SAWMYNADEN

This week’s rec: Water Lilies (1840-1926), a series by Claude Monet

Medium: Oil on canvas


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Self-Portrait With a Beret (1886)

“For me a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”
– Claude Monet

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series, composing of approximately 250 oil paintings, is spread out and displayed in galleries all around the world. They are arguably his most famous artworks, and while artistically alluring, are also a window into the way illness can have a debilitating effect on a human life, as well as an example of the wonders of scientific advancement.

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Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies (1899)

Oscar-Claude Monet was a French painter born in 1840, often hailed as one of the founding fathers of the Impressionist movement that swept through the Parisian artistic world in the 19th century. Contemptuous of the rigid constraints of art schools, Monet and his contemporaries soon began to obsess over the effect of natural light and the way rapid, broken brushstrokes could portray colour. Monet ventured away from the Realists’ linear perspective and clear depiction of reality, the established art form at the time, and experimented with bold colours, a looser grip and dainty strokes. The attention to details shifted the overall atmosphere, which is one of the major landmarks of Impressionism, with more focus on harmonies and contrasts of light, forms and colours. Funnily enough, this remarkably modern depiction of nature did not impress critics at the time, who characterised it as an “impression” of reality – the term, rather than add insult, seemed fitting as it captured the essence of this artistic movement. The expression went down in history.

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Camille Monet on her Deathbed, 1879

While Monet’s exceptional eye for colour was the gift that started a movement, it was at the same time a curse. In 1879 his wife, Camille Monet, passed away from uterine cancer at the age of thirty-two. Monet could not look at his dead wife’s face without noting and analysing the colours, going so far as to make a study in oils of her deathbed. He also suffered from depression throughout his life, and would often destroy paintings he had made.

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Water Lilies II (1906-1907), before Monet developed cataracts

In 1912, Monet’s health started to become an impediment to his art, with a slowly developing bilateral age-related cataract (nuclear sclerosis) in his right eye. This delivered a unique, strikingly different approach to Impressionism. “Colours no longer had the same intensity for me.” His brushstrokes became broader, coarser and clumsier since he could see “nothing but fog”; darker colours were exaggerated and his whites, greens and blues changed shade and were later replaced by reds, oranges, purples and, more predominantly, yellows. This seemed consistent with the visual effects of his disease since nuclear cataracts absorb light, cause desaturation of colours and cast one’s environment in a yellowish tint.

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The Japanese Bridge at Giverny (1918-1924), Monet about the time of his most severe visual disability.

As his eyesight deteriorated, Monet found himself forced to label his tubes of paint. In 1923, with both of his eyes seriously affected by brunescent cataracts (advanced, very opaque and brown nuclear cataracts), Monet finally gave in and underwent surgery. However, he only decided to have his right eye operated on, which resulted in a virtually recovered colour perception and visual acuity in one eye only. He soon started to experience cyanopsia, which is a temporary side effect following removal of cataracts that gives the world a bluish hue. It is believed that the removal of his right lens permitted Monet to see into the ultraviolet range, normally obscured by our lenses, thus explaining the generous use of blues and violets in his post-operative paintings.

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Wisteria (1925) exemplifies the abundant use of blue after Monet’s surgery to remove cataracts

While this new style may have been intentional, Monet’s destruction of many of his works from the last decade and reversion to his older, more delicate style after his operation refutes this hypothesis. The cause of his cataracts has yet to be known; some speculate that lead poisoning is a risk factor to cataract (Monet used lead-based paints). Nonetheless, it is his late work, done under the influence of cataracts, that has created a rather definite link between impressionism and modern abstract art.

Overall, the timeline of Monet’s art allows for the examination of a revolutionary movement, while at the same time serves as an almost harrowing account of how one man’s illness affected his life and perceptions. Through this, we can appreciate how far science has come and how it can be inextricably intertwined with the arts.

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“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.”

-Claude Monet

 

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