Wednesday, 3 October 2012


The art of seeing - with one eye!

Ballet rehearsal on stage at Paris Opera. Degas is the master of dance movement but the subdued lighting he depicts is as much due to his photo-phobia as to stage conventions

Most critics agree that what characterizes the work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is an ongoing and persistent analysis of the act of looking and its consequences.
Woman with field glasses - detail (1865)

While this is true of most great artists, in Degas' case it is even more remarkable because in life he suffered from poor eyesight. When he died in 1917 he was virtually blind.

  Early self-portrait revealing a distinctly 'odd' right eye. Note that his bad eye is turned away from the strong light source right of frame - a pose he frequently adopted in self-portraits

The loss of sight in one eye from about 1871 meant that his vision was, throughout his long professional career, monocular. This can have profound consequences for an artist - unless he or she adopts certain techniques to overcome (or conceal) this disability.

This portrait 1865 again emphasises Degas' right eye. indeed, it is almost blacked out.
There is also evidence of a distinct squint

He suffered also from photo-phobia and later developed a 'blind spot' in his one good eye. 'I have' he wrote in 1877) begun to see a light cloudiness in front of my eyes.'

These problems with deteriorating eyesight are widely document in Degas' own letters and in comments by his contemporaries, including close friends yet the significance of his monocular vision has been neither acknowledged nor fully evaluated within the art world.

Early representation of rehearsal in a dance studio. 
Note the subdued, overall lighting with a bright, yet oblique source of daylight top left of frame together with a further glimpse of light through the partially opened doors upper right of frame

It is thought that Degas' visual problems began with an infection contracted during the Defense of Paris (1870-71) when he spent time on the barricades.

The deterioration of his sight in his right eye dates from this time - leading to myopia, photo-phobia, uneven blurring of parts of the visual field and poor or impoverished perception of depth.

 Portrait of Degas by his friend, James Tissot (1860-61)

Portraits of Degas at this time show a man who is baleful, heavy lidded and with somewhat asymmetrical eyes. He has a squint (amblyopia) and in the early 1870's had treatment for irregular astigmatism from an eminent French ophthalmologist, Dr Edmund Landolt.
'They are trying to improve my sight by screening the right eye only and allowing the left one to see through a small slit'.

Degas preoccupation with light features in much of his work. This is not only a natural element of his urban realism but something of a preoccupation for a man whose eyes are so sensitive to any light sources.

 This delightful study of a single dancer shows a profound understanding of light and the way it can both soften and define. While the girl's throat and upper chest is well lit her little face is in shadow. The transparency of her dress, slightly back lit, is very subtle

Some of his 'experimental' work also explores the impact of strong back-light. In the portrait above (detail) the woman is overpowered by the strong light from her window, causing her features to almost disappear. 

This painting would have been regarded as daring and innovative at the time.

In 1874 Degas wrote: 'My eyes are very bad. The oculist wanted me to have a fortnight's complete rest.' This was the week that he and his colleagues were preparing to contribute to the First Impressionist Exhibition - an exhibition that was to have a profound impact on the art world. Not the best time perhaps to take a medical break!

Degas by Marcellin Desbotin

By 1877 Degas had 'begun to see a light cloudiness in front of my eyes.' In a later letter to his friend James Tissot he says, somewhat forlornly, that 'I shall remain in the ranks of the infirm until I pass into the ranks of the blind'.

This little portrait of a woman with a bandage over one eye is a poignant reminder, perhaps, of the artist's own problems. It was painted sometime between 1870 and 1872 - at exactly the time Degas' sight began to deteriorate further.

I first came across this fascinating aspect of Degas' work in a book by a distinguished British eye surgeon - Patrick Trevor Roper. His book was called The World Through Blunted Sight (1970) and examined a number of artists with known eye problems, including El Greco whom it was thought suffered from acute astigmatism.

 El Greco - Apostle Saint James the Less (1610-14)
Note the elongated features of both the saint's face and right hand. Even the book appears elongated. When viewed through a lens designed to correct for astigmatism, the features appear 'normal'

Degas' British biographer Richard Kendal has also explored the subject of Degas' eye problems - in an article in the Burlington Magazine (1988) from which I have already drawn a number of quotations.

But what impact does all this have on the paintings themselves and what artistic inferences can we draw from the problems Degas encountered through his long and distinguished career?

In this charming rehearsal scene, Degas has tried to give spatial depth to his painting by introducing figures in the foreground and even a somewhat over-dominant spiral staircase. The slightly 'bent' floor boards do not help the (not-so-successful) sense of diminishing perspective.

Our perception of spatial depth is a result of our two eyes and brain working in unison. Shut one eye and the world appears flat, two-dimensional. For an artist that can be something of a problem.

While the brain can itself compensate to a degree for this deficiency, an artist still needs to use a number of  technical tricks to give spatial depth to his compositions. If you already suffer from monocular vision, the challenge is even greater.

 This is a more successful attempt to convey spatial depth - helped this time by perspectival floorboards. 
The eye naturally travels from the foreground standing figure with her back to us up and across frame. The elevated figure (top right) draws the eye even further to the right.

Again the lighting is soft, subtle,and evenly applied across all the figures - presumably coming from windows out of 'shot' to the right of frame

In the 1870's the subjects Degas chose are primarily interiors - cafes, rehearsal rooms or on stage during a performance - unlike his fellow Impressionists, who preferred to work outdoors. Since Degas was acutely sensitive to bright light (photo-phobia) he frequently depicts dark interiors beyond which there is a concealed yet bright source of light - but always seen obliquely. 

 In this example the stage is seen from just above the orchestra pit (note the bald head in the foreground!). 
The lighting is entirely from the footlights. The tops of the double bases (right of frame) is a distancing device Degas used several times in these stage paintings.

Even on location in the theatre, when sketching these dancers, Degas wore smoked glasses to protect his good eye from direct light. In his paintings of this period, light is aggressive and often intrusive. His preferred choice is soft light that gently bathes his figures rather than sharply delineate them.

Although he himself did not own a camera until 1895 (when he was 61) he may well have used photographs before then, later using these images back in the studio to aid his compositions.

Access to backstage areas at the Paris Opera gave Degas the material he needed. 
A more sinister aspect to such privileges is that it afforded access for wealthy 'clients' seeking the favours of many of the dancers who supplemented their stage incomes with prostitution.

Although his sight was deteriorating throughout this period, Degas compensated for his disability through close observation and detailed construction. His preliminary designs for his larger paintings are amongst his most beautiful and technically accomplished work:

 'No art', he wrote at this time, 'was ever less spontaneous then mine.'

During the next decade - the 1880's - his sight deteriorated to such an extent that he had to switch from detailed oil paintings to pastels, which he found less tiring. He is now working almost exclusively in his studio with models and in conditions over which he has absolute control.

Although this shift in location and subject matter is partly determined by his diminishing sight and increased photo-phobia, these pastels are amongst his most sublime works and reveal an artist still performing at the top of his talent.

While much influenced at this time by Japanese art his compositions now show a distinct compositional shift - to acute angles in which, more often than not, the subject is viewed from above.

For a more detailed account of the impact Japanese art had on artists like Degas, Lautrec and Van Gogh, see my posting called Japonism. It can be found in  Popular Posts in the right-hand column of this blog

This top angle composition is also used in some dance images from this period - as in this stunningly beautiful study (below) in pastel or Conte crayon of four dances:

The pastel drawings of this period are amongst Degas' best but close inspection shows that parts are in sharp focus while others, often at the periphery, are soft - even on the same plane. This may be due to the myopia he suffered and to what later emerged as a 'blind spot' in his one good eye.

In other words, Degas is being selective in what he chooses to focus on. This is not realism but a highly sophisticated selection process, partly determined by artistic requirements but also undoubtedly shaped by his medical conditions.

 The image of a bending figure may have been inspired by 19th century Japanese prints then flooding into  Paris but they serve Degas' monocular purposes - creating a strong, dramatic spatial depth.

These top views involved the construction of platforms in his studio so that he could look down on his subject. These acute - even dramatic angles - compensated for his lack of spatial depth. His figures also get larger as he moves closer and closer towards them - not least so that he can see them better!

 This is a side view but he is closer to his model than he has ever been before. later he will adjust his position relative to her and get higher so that he is looking down upon her naked body.

The lighting - which he can now completely control to suit his needs - becomes softer and much subtler, giving these wonderful pastels a warm glow.
Although the depiction of intimate, domestic scenes like this were common in Japanese prints, they were at the time entirely new in European art. Although subject to accusations of  'voyeurism' , Degas' work (like that of Lautrec in the brothels of Monmartre) opened up wholly new areas for Modernist art.

In a letter dated 1893 Degas is quoted as saying: 'My sight is changing for the worse'. 

Some have argued that his increased activity as a sculpture at this time may be his way of coping but Richard Kendal has argued that this last period of his career (up to 1912) embraces the full range of his work, including detailed oil paintings. 

What is true is that some of his pastel landscapes are now almost abstract while his larger, late portraits lack detail and involve bold colours and shapes.

If you compare this fuzzy landscape (above) with Degas' earlier work - from the 1860's through to the end of that decade - you will see how is way of 'seeing' has changed. Although this may well be an artistic choice it is one made by a man whose eyesight is diminishing fast.

Throughout his career, Degas struggled to overcome his disabilities. He clearly refused to be beaten and produced a body of work that not only continued to explore the nature of looking but devised ways to counter or compensate for his own visual problems.

'I have no done badly as regards work, without much progress. Everything is long for a blind man, who wants to pretend that he can see' - Degas, 1896

'Degas constructs a view of the world', writes Richard Kendal, 'that incorporates his heightened awareness of vision and includes within it emblems of his visual distress' [Kendal p.9]. I hope this short article has amply illustrated that conclusion.

Mike Healey

Richard Kendal's article is called Degas and the contingency of vision. It can be found in the Burlington Magazine, Volume 130, No.1020 dated March, 1988.

The images for the above article have been taken from The Complete paintings of Degas which can be accessed directly by clicking on the link below:

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