A wonderful aspect of being responsible for this blog is that is that I never know what I am going to be writing about next.
One day I might be exploring the vision of animals or discussing the latest vision-related technology; on another I might be looking into what a hit movie can teach us about the history of eye care or learning more about the incredible capacity humans have to overcome adversity.
So, although I never thought that I would someday use this forum to discuss the connection between cataracts and the art
movement known as impressionism, I really shouldn’t be surprised!
Claude Monet, who lived from 1840 to 1926, actually gave impressionism its name when he entitled one of his paintings “Impression:
Monet and fellow impressionists did nothing short of revolutionize painting, which formerly was extremely literal; an artist painting a water lily, for example, would most likely seek to replicate it – the water lily on the canvas would be instantly recognizable as such.
Impressionists, however, would seek to convey the feeling of a water lily by focusing on how the light was affecting them and using unique visual angles.
I chose water lilies as my example, of course, because Monet is probably most famous for his 250 oil paintings of water lilies that graced the pond at his home outside of Paris.
“Filling the canvas, the surface of the pond becomes a world in itself, inspiring a sense of immersion in nature,” says one art historian. “Monet’s observations of the changing patterns of light on the surface of the water become almost abstract.”
Monet himself said about his approach, “The subject is not important to me; what I want to reproduce is what exists between the subject and me.”
You may be wondering what all this talk about impressionism and water lilies is doing on a vision blog. The connection is cataracts: a clouding of the cornea that is a very common disease of aging. By some estimates, more than half of all adults 60 years old have cataracts.
Monet was a prolific painter well into old age, but as he grew older, cataracts caused his vision to become cloudy.
“He complained to friends that he felt as if he saw everything in a fog,” writes Carl Zimmer. “After years of failed treatments, he agreed at age 82 to have the lens of his left eye completely removed. Light could now stream through the opening unimpeded. Monet could now see familiar colors again. And he could also see colors he had never seen before. Monet began to see—and to paint—in ultraviolet.”
That’s remarkable, of course, because humans don’t usually see “in ultraviolet,” although birds, bees and some other animals do. In some butterfly species, for example, the males and females look identical to humans. But in UV light, it’s clear that males are decked out in
patterns invisible to us. Humans can’t see those patterns because, as Zimmer points out, the lenses of our eyes filter out most ultraviolet rays.
That explains why, when Monet had the lens of eye his removed, he saw a world that few of us will ever experience.
“Flowers remained one of his favorite subjects, Zimmer writes. But with the lens removed “…now the flowers were different. When most people look at water lily flowers, they appear white. After his cataract surgery, Monet’s blue-tuned pigments could grab some of the UV light bouncing off of the petals. He started to paint the flowers a whitish-blue.”
If we live long enough, the odds are good that, like Monet, you and I will develop cataracts. Today, cataract surgery is routine, with an estimated 1.5 million cataract surgeries performed every year in the United States alone, so the chances of us ever seeing “in ultraviolet” like Monet are extremely slim.