Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Edgar Degas’ light sensitivity and its effects on his art

Zeynel Karcioglu
Virginia, United States

Author and wife in front of The Alexander and Bucephalus at The National Gallery in Washington, DC, contrasting the gleaming white
of Alexander’s chiton with their dark clothing.

The celebrated nineteenth century French painter Hilaire-Germain Edgar Degas was born in Paris in 1834 to a Creole mother from New Orleans and an Italian father from Naples. In 1855 he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, but the following year he went to Italy before finishing his studies. He stayed there with relatives for more than three years, studying Italian artists, particularly of the Renaissance.1,2

On returning to Paris in 1859, he painted psychologically complex portraits of his family and friends in a romantic style and worked on a number of historical themes, before moving to his now famous subjects of theater and ballet performances, horse races, and young women in different activities of toilette. His historical paintings included The Daughter of Jephthah, Sémiramis Building Babylon, and Young Spartans.2 In the mid-1860s, however, he suddenly moved towards contemporary subject matter, principally under Edouard Manet’s influence.

After the 1870s, Degas bitterly complained of blurred vision and light sensitivity in both eyes. These problems progressed throughout his life, and he gradually became ill-tempered and irascible.3 The cause of this ailment was unknown, but he had a maternal first cousin in New Orleans who had also been losing vision in both eyes since her youth. The family history, coupled with his increasing sensitivity to light and the gradually diminishing vision, caused him to fear blindness throughout his life. This fear was well-founded, as he descended eventually into total blindness several years before his death in 1917. No medical records of modern quality exist documenting visual deterioration, despite multiple consultations; no treatments were ever attempted other than different kinds of spectacles.3,4

About a century later, researchers conjecture that Degas and his cousin Estelle Musson had a hereditary retinal degeneration primarily affecting their central vision and light sensitivity secondary to progressive degeneration of the retina.5 Likely scenarios for Edgar’s and Estelle’s eye disease include ABCA4-associated retinal disorder and some type of retinitis pigmentosa.5,6 Given that he never married and had direct descendants, it is a difficult task to investigate these possibilities retroactively with even the most advanced genetic methodologies of today, but research is ongoing.

When Degas was visiting family in America in the early 1870s, he complained that his visual problems had become worse, and in his letters blamed the bright New Orleans sun: “The light is so strong that I have not yet been able to do anything on the River.”7,8 Indeed, he did all of his painting during that trip in shaded balconies, porches, and indoors, where the light was not bright.8 Degas’ friend Daniel Halevy and other visitors stated that he favored dim lighting in his studio, partially covering his large windows with dark curtains, and insisting that the glass remain dirty.9

Degas had mixed feelings about impressionism and its staple of landscape painting, which required working outdoors to capture the short-lived effects of light in nature.1,2,10 It seems likely that he did not feel at ease working outdoors because of his eye ailment, particularly his progressive light sensitivity.11,12 His failing vision likely made him unwilling to sit out in the countryside for hours observing the nuances of light to be captured on the canvas. He fittingly claimed that his landscape art was an insinuation and evocation of nature. He said that his own artistic preference was “to draw what only memory sees, freed from nature’s tyranny,” asserting his way as different from other impressionists without openly revealing that the tyranny in his case was the distressing eye disease.12

After 1880, pastel became Degas’s preferred medium. He used sharper colors, wide casual brushstrokes, and surface patterning depicting milliners, laundresses, and dancers against indistinct backgrounds.3,10 He depended more and more on memory and opined, “It is all very well to copy what you see, but how much better to draw only what the memory sees.”11,12 In the mid-1880s, as his eyesight was progressively failing, he turned to sculpture, modeling ballerina statuettes and horses in wax over metal frameworks.

Degas’ openness to other image creation techniques of his time raises the question of whether he was searching for a technique he could use in spite of his ailing eyes.13-17 In 1890 for example, he created a series of twenty-two landscape monotypes inspired by his journey to the countryside in Diénay in eastern France, allowing him to move his landscape painting to an entirely different course.14 His prints contained many areas of splotches, smears, and smudges, as displays of disfigured and discolored imperfections. The plates were inked generously and expressively, transforming the appearance of the original design. This allowed each print to be as individual as a unique painting, attempting to make each edition of the print as unoriginal as possible. Diénay monotypes could be recognized as individual landscapes only insofar as their controlled flaws suggested mountains, plains, lakes, and rivers, which were not altogether unpleasing to the eye. Although Degas had been familiar with the technique of monotype making, this was the first group of serious prints arranged in an exhibition by his art dealer Durand-Ruel in 1892. The monotype is an age-old method of printmaking in which the plate is not etched. It therefore generates only a unique, or at the most, two prints. Degas’ obsession with taking more than one impression was paradoxical considering the nature of the medium. His use of colored oil in his late monotypes was also unique, as most of his work in this medium was black and white. His innovative approach, the randomness of his images, set in neither time nor place, distinguished Degas from other landscape artists of his time. In 1891, he had declared: “People see what they want to see; it is false; and this falseness constitutes art.” Again, the painter’s deteriorating vision is a plausible explanation for his search for a way of artistic expression that would be comfortable on his eyes.

The concept of not copying nature exactly but offering an insinuation based on self-interpretation was well-suited to Degas’s Symbolist friends, who deplored the positivist view of reality. Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century artistic movement in Europe that originated in poetry and extended to visual arts. This movement’s notion of idyllic art, as declared in the Symbolist Manifesto, was “to objectify the subjective.”17,18 Although, Degas cannot be categorized as a pure Symbolist visual artist, his monotypes fit the Symbolist narrative quite well.

After creating the Diénay monotypes, Degas tried another medium that may have been soothing on his eyes as well: photography.16,17 The Symbolists held Degas’ monotypes, and his art in general, in high regard, but conversely they despised photography. To them photography represented everything unacceptable about the positivist view of reality against which they revolted. “As impersonal and banal as photographs,” was how Aurier described “those numerous abominations.” Moreas claimed in his Symbolist Manifesto that “the essential aim of our art is to objectify the subjective” instead of “subjectifying the objective,” as declared in Zola’s aphorism “art is nature seen through a temperament.”19 Something as real as photography did not appeal to Symbolism, which is predicated upon involving oneself in the perplexity that art should represent. The argument about photography was perfectly acceptable to Degas. “Art is a falsehood,” he asserted in a letter from New Orleans in 1872, “photography is instantaneousness, nothing more.”20 His niece Jeanne Fevre understood well where her uncle stood: “[M]y uncle realized perfectly well the inferiority of photography which is only a mechanical eye,” she wrote in her memoirs on her famous uncle.21

Degas was severely critical of his own paintings, just as he was critical of others’ art; he was rarely sufficiently satisfied with a work to finish it, and he made many changes as an incessant “retoucher.” When he died, many unfinished pictures from decades past were discovered in his studio. A lesser known incomplete painting among his historical compositions is The Alexander and Bucephalus (1861). It is Degas’ portrayal of Plutarch’s legend of Alexander’s taming of the fabled wild horse. The painting is revealing from the standpoint of the painter’s photophobia, which could have been bothering him earlier in his life than we realize. One version of the legend goes as follows: “. . . he immediately ran to the horse, and taking hold of the bridle, turned him directly towards the sun, blinding the horse with bright light and avoiding the animal to see his own shadow; the horse was pacified by the sunlight and not disturbed by the motion of his own shadow . . .”22 In the painting, Degas emphasized the effect of bright sun. The rearing horse is somewhat incapacitated because of the sunlight hitting its eyes directly; it appears to be backing up and giving in. The amount and the direction of the inbound light is clearly displayed, using a bright white color on young Alexander’s chiton, a color Degas rarely used. No wonder that he did not, or could not, finish The Alexander and Bucephalus.

It is likely that the main motivation behind Degas’ experimentation with different avenues of artistic expression was to find the best artistic medium for his progressively failing eyesight. Although he complained habitually about his vision after the Franco-Prussian War and his New Orleans visit in the early 1870s, he may have been suffering with this problem since his earliest days as an artist and subconsciously aware of it since childhood.


  1. Sutton D: Edgar Degas: Life and Work. New York: Rizzoli, 1986
  2. Gordon R, Forge A: Degas. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988
  3. Marmor, MF, Ravin JG: The Artist’s Eyes. New York: Abrams, pp 188-193, 2009
  4. Trevor-Roper PD: The World Through Blunted Sight, London: Penguin Publishers, 1988
  5. Karcioglu ZA: Did Edgar Degas have a hereditary retinal degeneration? J Ophthalmic Genetics 2007; 28:51-5
  6. Karcioglu ZA, Marmor MF, Stone EM: Did Edgar Degas have Stargard’s disease? American Academy of Ophthalmology, October 2018.
  7. Feigenbaum G: Degas and New Orleans. Seattle: Marquand Books, 1999
  8. Karcioglu ZA: Edgar Degas’ Visit to New Orleans: A Play of Four Canvasses. Memphis: Riverside, 2008
  9. Halevy D: Degas parley, Paris, 1960 (English translation, My Friend Degas, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1964
  10. Sickert W: ‘Post-Impressionists,’ Fortnightly Review, January 1911
  11. Lanthony P: La Malvision d’Edgar Degas, Medecine et hygiene 1990; 48: 2382-2401.
  12. Karcioglu ZA, Eliason DA: Edgar Degas’s Eyes. Hospital Drive: The Journal of Literature Humanities. University of Virginia School Of Medicine, September 2015 http://news.med.virginia.edu/hospitaldrive/
  13. Munro J: Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017.
  14.  Adhemar J , Cachin F: Degas: The Complete Etchings, Lithographs and Monotypes, New York: The Viking Press, 1975.
  15. Boggs JS, Druick DW, Loyrette H, Pantazzi M, Tinterow G: Degas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988-89
  16. Daniel, M: Edgar Degas: Photographer Met Publications, New York, 1998.
  17. Crimp D: Positive/Negative: A Note on Degas’s Photographs. Photography 1978 (summer); 5: 89-100. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/778647
  18. Moreas J: “Le Symbolism,” Figaro Litteraire, September 18, 1886. Quoted in John Rewald, Post-Impressionism, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1956, p. 148.
  19. Chipp HB: Theories of Modern Art. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1968, p. 96
  20. Guerin M: Edgar Degas, Letters, trans. Marguerite Kay, Oxford, 1947, p. 22.
  21. Fevre J: Mon Oncle Degas: Souvenirs et Documents Inédits. Genève: P. Cailler, 1949
  22. Hammond NGL: The Genius of Alexander the Great. Chapter 1: Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998

ZEYNEL KARCIOGLU, MD, is a medical/surgical physician, researcher and a medical educator specializing in ophthalmic oncology and pathology, presently practicing and teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He is also a Professor Emeritus at Tulane University in New Orleans. Dr. Karcioglu has written numerous scientific papers, book chapters, and books and has given many presentations at regional, national, and international meetings. His tangential interest has been the diseases of the artists and the effects of health problems on their work. To this end, he studied on particular instances of writers’ and artists’ diseases, and has produced a variety of works in general medical humanities and medical history.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 3 – Summer 2019

Spring 2019



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