Degas in New Orleans

I have just had and still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes,” wrote Degas to his then friend, the painter James Tissot. “It caught me at Chateau by the edge of the water in full sunlight while I was doing a watercolour and it made me lose nearly three weeks, being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest Ishould remain like that.” The year was 1871. Degas was thirty-seven, and he seems to have dated his affliction from this period, since he later told Walter Sickert (among others) that “during the siege of Paris, he had slept in a studio with a high window from which the cold air poured down on his face at night.”

The year before, when he had volunteered for the National Guard, he had found that he could not see the target with his right eye. No doubt this would have been something of a humiliation, since it meant that he could not serve his country in quite the way he wanted to. No doubt also the discovery was alarming, since Degas knew that there was blindness in the family: his cousin Estelle Musson, one of his Creole relatives from New Orleans, was losing her sight. Perhaps it would be Degas’s turn next.

It is with some reluctance that one comes to speculate on such questions: one does not wish to perpetrate the mistake of confusing the ophthalmic problems of an artist with matters of style. One does not wish to join the philistines who thought that the Impressionists had an eyesight problem, or to explain El Greco away as a case of astigmatism. Nevertheless it is interesting that Monet is said to have rejected glasses on the grounds that seeing things in sharp focus would “make him see like Bouguereau.” Degas, after borrowing a pair of field glasses at the races, remarked on handing them back: “Just like a Meissonier, isn’t it?”

Both of these remarks can be taken as no more than jokes at the expense of bad painters. But we know that Degas had thought seriously about the questions they imply, for he is recorded as having discussed the theory that Eugène Carrière’s paintings were affected by the peculiarity of his vision. Degas said: “There is one Liebreich in England who is convinced that an artist’s originality lies in the special contexture of the eye…. I am convinced that these differences of vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It’s false; and it is that falsity that constitutes art.” Richard Kendall, on whose interesting essay I am relying, explains the reference to R. Liebreich: an article called “Turner and Mulready—On the Effect of certain Faults of Vision on Painting, with especial Reference to their Works” in Proceedings of the Royal Institution, 1872. Since Degas had very little English it is unlikely that he had read such an article. No …

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Letters

Degas’ Birds November 4, 1999