- Degas Through His Own Eyes
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) once said that he was convinced that differences in vision are of no importance to the artist. Rather, in his view, inner vision determined the nature of an artist's work. This seems like an ironic statement when we consider the visual difficulties that plagued him throughout his life. Engaging with Degas's actual visual situation, as Michael Marmor does in Degas Through His Own Eyes, allows us to think through Degas's case and to better place him in terms of his time. As he was an Impressionist, it is easy to characterize the blurring and loosening of Degas's style in terms of cultural trends. Marmor convincingly argues that to do so is to lose sight of the degree to which the individual and the cultural are complementary. In this case, considering the degree to which Degas's deteriorating ability to see the world around him influenced his conception of his work reminds us that the artist's eyes complement his inner vision. Moreover, when we closely study Degas's situation it becomes clear that both the emergence of Impressionism and his subnormal acuity could account for the loosening of his style as his work matured.
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Generally it is agreed that Degas had a condition called retinopathy. He first noticed poor vision in his right eye at the age of 36, when he found he could not aim a rifle during the Franco-Prussian War. We know this realization dates from the early 1870s because of letters Degas wrote while in New Orleans, in which he wrote about weakness in his eye and an inability to read and write. Since there are no known measurements of Degas's acuity, Marmor uses four sources to make estimates: historical records of correspondence, personal remembrances, the shading of lines in Degas's art, and Degas's handwriting. Marmor also summarizes the key details of Degas's life in terms of his paintings and works on paper. As he explains, the precision we encounter in the early work is extraordinary, as is the roughness of many of Degas's later pieces, which are often done in larger formats. The quotations from his letters and friends are the most compelling evidence of the anomalous condition.
Fully recognizing the degree to which a visual artist depends on visual analyses when constructing a work, Marmor aids us in connecting stylistic trends of Impressionism with Degas's physical capabilities. His book is also a welcome addition to the literature connecting visual science with visual art. It is not just that Marmor demonstrates intersections between art and science, he also shows a knack for finding ways to bring the reader into the discussion experientially, which makes Degas Through His Own Eyes more than a descriptive analysis. I was, for example, impressed by the selections Marmor chose first to demonstrate visual acuity in general and the subsequent application of the computer-simulated examples to Degas's experience. Reproduced examples of variations effectively transformed the words into a conceptual grasp of each point introduced. Indeed, on closing the book, I felt the visuals had allowed me to embody how Degas's eyes deteriorated as he aged. The visuals also convincingly make the point that Degas himself did not recognize the degree to which his deteriorating eyesight changed his work.
What I liked most about the book was Marmor's highly original approach. He effectively brings an ophthalmologist's eye to art without losing sight of the degree to which an artist's creative process includes more than just the eyes. We are reminded that cultural context, changing styles and visual acuity all influence an artist's oeuvre. Marmor's ability to aid the reader in "seeing" how one might clinically assess Degas's visual disabilities in clinical terms is a distinctive contribution to the literature in this area. The most useful chapter, "Seeing Art with Blurred Vision," simulates how Degas would have seen...