James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

Back to Articles

The art of seeing through yellow-tinted spectacles

IT IS well known that towards the end of his life Monet’s sight was seriously impaired by cataracts. Still, it comes as quite a shock to see the effect on his paintings in the flesh, as it were, at the exhibition of his works currently showing at the Royal Academy.

In the early paintings, the reflections in the water of the famous pond at Giverny are so limpid that one has the impression it would only be necessary to reach out to feel the water running through one’s hands.

As time passed, his brushwork became much cruder and the colouring drearier. Writing in 1918, Monet observed: "I no longer perceive colours with the same intensity. Reds appear muddy to me, pinks insipid. What I paint is darker and darker, and when I compare it to my former works, I am seized by a frantic rage and slash at my canvases with a penknife."

Contemporary critics, true to form, stuck their knives in as well. "Monet’s coloured symphony has become increasingly monochromatic," one observed; and another described his paintings as "very unpleasant indeed with their coarse handling of paint and bilious colouring".

This "coarseness and bilious colouring" was due to the two distinct types of visual distortion induced by cataracts. The first, predictably enough, is simply a loss of visual acuity, but less well appreciated is that the cataract also has a yellowish discolouration, which makes the external world seem dirty. This yellowness also blocks out light from the blue end of the spectrum, to which the retina adapts by increasing its sensitivity to blues and greens.

In 1920, after the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau had commissioned Monet to paint a series of enormous canvases of the water lilies in the Giverny pond, he realised he could "no longer make something of beauty". Finally, he agreed to having his cataracts operated on.

The standard procedure at the time was crude but effective, taking less than five seconds in skilled hands. With the eye anaesthetised with cocaine, the surgeon made an incision at the margin of the iris with a scalpel and scooped out the lens, together with its cataract. Then, while the incision healed, Monet had to spend the next 10 days flat on his back, with bandages over the eyes and his head immobilised by sandbags to prevent any movement.

His vision no longer clouded by cataracts, Monet perceived the world again with an unaccustomed brilliance, but also with an entirely different problem of colour perception. As his retina was now so highly sensitive to the blue/green end of the spectrum, these colours now overwhelmed all others.

"I now see only blue," he wrote. "I no longer see red or yellow. This annoys me terribly. I know these colours exist; I know that on my palette there is some red, some yellow and a certain violet. It’s dispiriting. I see nothing but blue."

The simple solution, proposed by a Parisian ophthalmologist whose advice Monet sought over Sunday lunch at Giverny, was that he should wear yellow-tinted glasses. The overwhelming blue tones disappeared and he started work on his waterlily canvases with enthusiasm.

Writing to his surgeon, he comments: "I am very happy to inform you that finally I have recovered my true vision. In brief, I am happily seeing everything again and am working with ardour."

Almost 30 years after Monet’s operation, the modern era of cataract surgery was inaugurated by Harold Ridley, an ophthalmic surgeon at St Thomas’s. During the Second World War he had observed that penetrating glass injuries to the eye sustained by fighter pilots elicited virtually no inflammatory reaction. So why not, he speculated, remove the dirty yellow lens and replace it with a plastic implant?

Needless to say, had Monet had his operation nowadays, the problems he encountered would not have occurred. Cataract surgery is so successful that people no longer defer the operation for fear that it might go wrong. Consequently, the retina has less time to develop its heightened sensitivity to blue.

Further, it is now possible to remove the cataract through a minute incision in the cornea – so rather than spending 10 days immobilised with the eyes bandaged, most patients can go home immediately after the operation. Finally, the insertion of a plastic intra-ocular lens to replace the cataract obviates the need to wear glasses.

And yet, paradoxically, Monet’s prolonged visual impairment prior to his cataract operation was not in vain. As this paper’s art critic, John McEwen, explains, it allowed him "to break the bounds of observation to become a visionary painter". So his final vast waterlily canvases have "a spiritual transcendence" in which Monet’s greatness is "fully revealed".

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd