There’s a wealth of creative info to be had in the life and work of Edgar Degas. He was a precise, thoughtful artist with an evolved, academic drawing ability. Impressed by Japanese prints, Degas contrived compositions not seen before, snapshot cropping and happenstance placing that gave a sense of movement and the passage of time. Degas shunned outdoor work but is nevertheless lumped in with the Impressionists. His subject matter was wide-ranging and eclectic–historical and classical scenes, horses, dancers, café life, figures, sports, women at work, portraiture. His media included oil, chalk, pastel, pencil, engraving, mono-print, sculpture and photography.
Degas first noticed his eye problems when he was a national guardsman in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. With a blind spot in the center of his right eye, he was a poor shot. By 1890, his left eye also began to deteriorate. Looking sideways at his work, he used peripheral vision to compensate. Much has been written and speculated about Degas’ eyes. Stanford ophthalmologist Dr. Michael Marmor has used computer simulations to gauge the problems and mimic the blurred vision that increasingly affected Degas’ ability to see form and line.
Degas’ later works are marked with unfinished passages, evenin tightly rendered paintings. He frequently blamed his eye troubles for his inability to finish. Having what is now called a “scattered mind,” he claimed to “begin a hundred things and not finish one.”
Noting the changes that came about in his later works, some observers feel that while Degas’ draftsmanship lost realistic description and refinement, it gained in grandeur and expression.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) often turned to sculpture. You can understand the appeal by blindfolding yourself and putting your hands on wet clay. Form can be felt as well as seen, and it’s even more voluptuous and expressive in the hands. Degas’ sculptures rival Rodin’s. He wound up his working life about 1912. Degas spent his last years dejected and alone, imprisoned in his advanced disability, having outlived many of his friends.
PS: “Degas works were prepared, calculated, practiced and developed in stages. Each part was adjusted to the whole, their linear arrangement was the occasion for infinite reflection and experiment.” (Andrew Forge)
Esoterica: Plugging Edgar Degas into “Google images” brings up 79,000 illustrations and their links. Commercial online print sites, museum collections and illustrated scholarship sit cheek by jowl and invite further clicks. High-res and low-, Google presents a different type of learning. Follow-your-nose browsing takes the scholar on a magic carpet that is independent of approved curriculum. Curiously, lack of information alongside some images often begs valuable questions: “What’s going on here?” “What could be?” and “What do I think about it?”
Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)
Mature works more powerful
by John Rocheleau, Kelowna, BC, Canada
I prefer Degas’ later, less detailed paintings. They get to the point without dressing it up too much. The technical skill to render precisely is sometimes a disadvantage–you want to exercise that; put it to what you think is good use–but the result is often less visceral. I recall a few paintings by Norman Rockwell in his later years. He couldn’t paint the realism that he was accustomed to. The results were powerful. Sometimes what we think is our strength actually detracts from our ability to express ourselves.
Myopia – the artist’s friend?
by Julie Hollis, Dumfries, Scotland, UK
As a short-sighted artist I found the story of Degas’ failing eyesight fascinating. How often do we truly get to see through someone else’s eyes? When I construct my landscapes I paint what I see – which, without my contacts, is very little clearly! My paintings reflect this and I make no apology for it because the viewer gets to see exactly what I do. I rely on light, colour and shape to dictate the feeling of my paintings and very rarely include detail, because detail is something that eludes me! However, I do find this loss of detail comforting. In my distorted world things become far simpler than they really are!
Poor sight helps in portraiture
by Karin Wells, Peterborough, NH, USA
I wonder how many other working artists have major “eye problems.” I am blind in my left eye and have poor vision in my right eye… yet I make my living as a portrait painter. I have met several other working artists with similar poor vision and somehow we all think that it helps rather than hurts our art. I do not have depth perception and hence landscapes are very challenging for me to paint. I do well with a shallow field such as a portrait or a still life.
Macular degeneration — Armand Merizon
by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
Declining sight and diminishing powers of perception and memory can be terrifying prospects for an artist. There is a well known Michigan artist, Armand Merizon, who is still producing work into his late eighties with macular degeneration. His mind is sharp and he still participates in critiques with the Grand Valley Artists. The highlight of critique night is the showing of his recent work. His work is still beautiful, though more abstract. There was a documentary recently made about his life including his current visual challenges.
Elderly artist dejected and alone
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada
I know your letter was about eyesight, but what stands out to me in this letter is how Degas lived his last years, in your words, “dejected and alone.” Degas was my inspiration in art school, the reason I pursued painting in soft pastel. It interests me that talent and accomplishment are not a sure ticket to happiness. Success in one area of life does not equal a successful life. While painting might be a very important part of our lives, we must not neglect the whole. Artists by nature are passionate individuals, and it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture because we become consumed by painting the smaller ones.
by Lynda Thompson, Highland Springs, VA, USA
It is interesting how many artists through the years have had declining sight. Unfortunately, I am one of them. I have Fuchs’ Dystrophy. Depending on my overall health, when the time comes, I may be eligible for transplants. Are you aware of Lisa Fittipaldi of San Antonio? She is an artist who only began painting after she became legally blind.
Lens implants did the trick
by Rod Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada
I do not know if Degas might have benefited from a lens implant, but I certainly have! The ironic part is that the implant is trade named AcrySof, because it is made from an acrylic polymer, the very same substance found in Plexiglas and in the paints I use each day. Thirty years ago, I noticed that I had a warm eye and a cool one. Critics of my work also said that they were oversaturated, but I dismissed this, having been assigned better than average vision. I was out of the game of painting pictures for four years, when like Degas, I suffered from a sudden loss of eye-hand co-ordination. By the year 2000 the big “E” on the eye chart looked like three heavy parallel lines and my peripheral vision had vanished. I stopped driving a car and was soon diagnosed as having glaucoma. The good news is that little bit of acrylic brought my vision back to 20/30. I wonder if other artists have had this same result.
by Anne-Elisabeth Nitteberg, Lillesand, Norway
I have experienced different types of paint, brushes, strokes, thinners, methods, strategy. I went to a restoration specialist in France which is restore old paintings in south France and she thought me to stretch and prepare the canvas like in mediaeval times. She thought me also how to create folds and depth. The title Pantha rei felt natural to me, since I did not make a copy. And to copy a glimpse of the universe that is just flowing would be quite bizzare. It was through my background investigating on Heraklit I found that it was something called “Pantheism.” Voila, ma révérence pour la nature c’est ma vie. When I started to paint Pantha rei it was from an unforgettable inspiration the NASA Hubble Telescope team had given me. When I saw the “Orion Nebula” on their website, I was sold. By the time my painting was finished, the Orion Nebula picture had been the most popular and very known.
Capture it while you can
by Ragen Mendenhall, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Only time can remind us what a marvel this world is… I was 13 years old when I sketched a pair of eyes in ball point pen on a napkin at my grandmother’s kitchen table. It was a bit of a surprise to me, on my next visit, to find that grandpa had taken that tattered little napkin, and tacked it up to the esteemed wall where all the photos of the beloved family were proudly displayed. The eyes reminded me, each time I would visit, how much my grandparents adored me and how proud they were of my talent for art. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when my grandmother told me how Grandpa’s eyes had been progressively deteriorating from macular degeneration, that I truly understood what it was about that little sketch that was so very precious to him. Today Grandpa is clinically blind, and he needs help from others just to accomplish the very basic of life’s routines. When he touches my hand I see, revealed upon his face, the heartache… he can’t see his fully grown granddaughter. How brilliant life is… what an unfathomable gift that we have, to share in this beauty, this miracle. How cruel to recognize aging, as it withers and dims all that once was. It only serves to remind us, and compel us to capture these fleeting and precious moments in paint, and to seize every inspiration as if it were the last.
Save your first editions
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
You may have already thought of this, but I wanted to encourage you to hold back some of your first editions when you get to the end of your run. There is a particular “Signed First Edition” market out there and they can become worth much more than their sticker price on down the road of time. You may want to contact a wonderful book store in Jackson, MS called Lemuria Books. They specialize in signed first editions (some worth thousands by writers like Twain and Faulkner), it’s definitely their “thing,” and they have purchased many of mine. I found them by chance and have developed a very nice, personal relationship with them over the years and they have always been enthusiastic about my work and my independent production of them. If you get in touch with them, talk to Yvonne first, she is a lovely, art-loving southerner who loves to talk to folks who make books.
Enjoy the past comments below for Declining sight…
Solitary Fishing Boat
oil painting on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Loraine Wellman of Richmond, BC, Canada who wrote, “Degas used tracing (tissue) paper and re-used the same drawings. Sometimes starting with nudes, he would clothe them in different-coloured ballet tutus. The little black velvet bow at the neck was his invention — and now we think of it as traditional.”
And also Loretta West of Spokane, WA, USA who wrote, “California watercolorist, Milford Zornes has macular degeneration and at 100 years of age still paints today, despite his failing sight.”
And also Louise Francke who wrote, “An artist does what he has to do. As we age and eyesight fails, we adapt so we can continue to create. Thankfully, the changes come gradually and we hardly notice wearing glasses and changing lenses over the years.”
And also Ron Ogle of Asheville, NC, USA who wrote, “Degas’ sculptures rival Rodin’s?? Surely not even a blind person would agree.”
And also Steve Hovlandof CA, USA who wrote, “Take fish oil to keep your eyes sharp.”