Beauty is in the Eye: Artists and their Eye Conditions

Before an artist uses their hands to put paint to paper, they must first see. While blind people can create masterpieces, most will need to see what they’re doing. But what happens when an artist, in a literal sense, sees differently?

A recent study asks just that. Ophthalmologists found that Leonardo da Vinci had exotropic strabismus – from the Greek ‘to squint’ – a rare eye condition in which one’s eyes don’t aim at the same point as one or both are turned outward. This results in loss of depth perception, so da Vinci would have had “2-dimensionsal monocular vision”, meaning that he can use his eyes separately to focus on extremely close surfaces.

According to Professor Christopher Tyler, “The weight of converging evidence suggests that Da Vinci had intermittent exotropia, with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision. This would perhaps explain his great facility for depicting the three-dimensional solidity of faces and objects in the world and the distant depth recession of mountainous scenes.” You can see this in ‘Madonna of the Carnation’:

In da Vinci’s bronze statue of David, reputedly a representation of a young da Vinci, the right eye is turned outward:

The artist using their eye conditions to their advantage is not a phenomenon reserved only for da Vinci.  In 1912, Claude Monet was diagnosed with cataracts, and he refused treatment. He complained that colours appeared muddy, and he eventually had to go by the names of colours on their tubes. You can map his regressive condition through his paintings. His two paintings of the Japanese Footbridge are perhaps the most obvious:

In a frustrated letter to Marc Elder in 1922, he writes, “I was forced to recognize that I was spoiling [the paintings], that I was no longer capable of doing anything good. So, I have destroyed several of my panels.”

Further on in 1922, these feelings of frustration have truly sunken in and he writes of his condition as it is both a blessing and a curse: “to think I was getting on so well, more absorbed than I’ve ever been and expecting to achieve something, but I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beauty all the same, and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey. All in all, I am very unhappy.”

While he seems to feel an inadequacy in the unfulfilled potential to properly capture his experience, his paintings are still beautiful and tell us much about how the physical characteristics of an artist affect their work, a dimension many art critics seem to overlook. His journey may also inspire other artists to explore new forms of creativity rather than viewing a condition as a hinderance.

The age old calling for artists to be separated from their artwork falls through in light of their experiences, as for da Vinci, Monet, and countless others, their artwork was a product of their own physical and mental state, a literal reflection of them.  To argue any work exists entirely independently of its creator is ignorant of the fact that art does not form out of thin air and reflects life itself – and the artist can only depict life in the way that they know it.

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