Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

How artists saw the world through eye disease


Stanford ophthalmologist Michael Marmor, MD, created images of artists’ perceptions, including Degas’ “Woman Drying her Hair.”


Michael Marmor, MD, wanted to know what it was like to see through the eyes of an artist—literally.

After writing two books on artists and eye disease, the Stanford ophthalmologist decided to go one step further and create images that would show how these artists actually saw their world and their canvases. Combining computer simulation with his own medical knowledge, Marmor re-created images of some of the masterpieces of French Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, who continued to work while they struggled with cataracts and retinal disease, respectively.

The striking results are currently on view at the School of Medicine’s Lane Library, which is showcasing Marmor’s scholarly work. The public exhibit, “What Degas and Monet Saw,” is a collaboration with museums around the world, which have supplied reproductions of the painters’ works. These are displayed side by side with Marmor’s simulations of how the artists would have viewed the works through the altered lens of eye disease.

For instance, in Marmor’s simulated version, Degas’ later paintings of nude bathers become so blurry that it’s difficult to see any of the artist’s brushstrokes. Monet’s later paintings of the lily pond and the Japanese bridge at Giverny, when adjusted to reflect the typical symptoms of cataracts, appear dark and muddied. The artist’s signature vibrant colors are muted, replaced by browns and yellows.

“These simulations may lead one to question whether the artists intended these late works to look exactly as they do,” Marmor said. “The fact is that these artists weren’t painting in this manner totally for artistic reasons.”

Michael Marmor


Marmor chose to focus on Degas and Monet because both artists suffered from eye disease that was documented in historical records, journals and medical histories. Degas had retinal eye disease that frustrated him for the last 50 years of his long career. Monet complained of cataracts interfering with his ability to see colors for 10 years before he finally underwent surgery to have them removed.

“We understand better from these simulations what Degas and Monet struggled with as their vision failed,” Marmor said.

The exhibit was organized by Lane’s Historical Curator Drew Bourn, with assistance from library staff Olya Gary and Patty French.

What Degas and Monet Saw” is on display at Lane Library until the end of the year. The library is open Monday-Thursday from 8 a.m. to midnight; Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to midnight.

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