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Claude Monet and Developing Cataracts

Portrait Claude Monet

Whilst getting together with friends recently, a friend recalled a fascinating story I hadn’t previously heard. We were catching up and discussing a close friends’ recent glaucoma surgery and were chit-chatting about eye health in general when Ian (said friend) told the story about the artist Claude Monet. He was a founder of French impressionist painting and was known for paintings devoted to a single theme or subject mostly painting nature as he perceived it. He repetitively painted the same scenes but at different times of day over months and years, showing the effect of sunlight, time and weather through colour and contrast. Monet is probably most famous for his Water Lillies work,

which is a collection of approximately 250 oil paintings depicting his flower garden at his home in Giverny, France. Ian told us the story of how Monet painted the Water Lily Pond and Japanese Bridge in his garden in 1899 and then again some 20 years later, when he had developed cataracts, the difference between the two pieces of work being remarkable. I love little stories like this related to the eye and vision and so I looked up Monet’s work to see the results myself. And indeed, he repetitively painted this famous scene over the years and at various times of day and in various seasons, all whilst his own eyesight was diminishing due to the changes brought on by his developing cataracts. Some of that work is shown below to show the change in colours, contrast and detail of his work that his failing eyesight caused.

Water Lily Pond and Japanese Bridge in his garden in 1899

Much of Monet’s work in his last thirty years were completed whilst he suffered cataracts. In 1914, he began to severely struggle with painting, complaining that “colours no longer had the same intensity” and that his paintings were getting “more and more darkened.” He resisted surgery for many years, until finally agreeing to have surgery in 1923. Surgery was far risky back then compared to treatment now, with a long post-operative period and the need for highly powered prescription glasses to be worn to gain visual improvement. After his surgery, Monet destroyed many of the paintings he created when he had suffered the worst of his visual problems with cataracts. His post-operative works are devoid of garish colours or coarse application and once again resemble his paintings from before 1914.

Water Lily Pond and Japanese Bridge in his garden in 1919

Often when I see clients for their post-operative assessment after their cataract has been treated and removed, they often remark on not only the clarity of vision but of the brightness and colours that are seen afterward. A client recently was telling me about a jumper she had bought a few months prior to having her cataract surgery that she believed was a lovely peach colour, only to realise after surgery that it was bright pink! A colour she never usually wore! Another client was shocked by the colour of sofa they bought for their living room once they’d had their cataract surgery!

Cataract is usually slow to progress, blurring vision gradually and dulling the contrast of the world around us and distorting colours. You become accustomed to what the environment looks like and it can be quite a shock once the cataract is removed!


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