Ten Ways Visual Impairment Influenced Classic Artists
The following post first appeared as part of the excellent blog that Veronica Lewis writes on visual impairment. She is a student majoring in information technology at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. To make the reading a bit easier, I have deleted all of the citations to medical publications that Veronica included in the original post to document her writing. The original of this essay may be found at
It’s easy to forget that in an era before modern medicine, people lived with a large variety of significant medical conditions that would probably be correctable today. Veronica reminds us in this post of how the works of some famous artists were influenced by their disabilities.
It’s easy to assume that in order to create any form of art, one must have perfect eyesight so they can paint rich landscapes like Claude Monet or draw sketches like Leonardo da Vinci. However, many would be surprised to learn that several of the most famous artists of all time were visually impaired- even Monet and da Vinci themselves. Today, I will be sharing ten ways that vision impairment has influenced classic art by highlighting ten famous artists throughout history that have either been confirmed to have or, highly likely to have, different types of vision loss from a variety of conditions.
Leonardo da Vinci and intermittent exotropia
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian renaissance artist in the 1400s and 1500s with many talents and research interests, which included painting, drawing, sculpting, and many more. After examining six of his works across three different techniques (drawing, painting, and sculptures), researchers noted that the eyes of the subject in each of his works turned outward. The eyes were at an angle consistent with intermittent exotropia, meaning there were times where his eyes presented as normal and other times when one turned outward, leaving the vision in the other eye intact. Because of this condition, he often viewed people, places, and objects in 2D shapes, as if the world around him was a canvas come to life.
Edgar Degas and retinopathy
Edgar Degas was a French artist in the late 1800s and early 1900s who is considered one of the founders of the French Impressionist movement, with over half of his artistic pieces relating to dance. His eye condition was first noticed in 1870 while visiting his family home, when he noticed that he had trouble painting in the bright sunlight, likely as a result of photosensitivity. His central vision was primarily affected, causing many of his later paintings to appear blurry. His sister had similar vision loss and lost her sight completely in her 30s, so it is believed that the condition was genetic.
Guercino and esotropia
Guercino was an Italian artist in the 1600s that used the Baroque art style in the over 200 paintings and altarpieces he created during his lifetime. He got the nickname Guercini from the Italian word for “squinter.” His biographer says that he developed strabismus suddenly one night after he woke up to an “extremely loud and unusual noise” that resulted in his right eye permanently turning inwards, a condition known as esotropia. Many of his works showcase subjects with odd or unusual facial features much like his own unique features, a theme that is most prominent in his caricature drawings.
Auguste Renoir and myopia
Auguste Renoir was a French artist in the 1800s and early 1900s who was a member of the Impressionist movement and well known for portraits. He’s also recognized for having myopia (also known as nearsightedness), meaning he had difficulty seeing items that were far away. However, he did not have any known visual correction and actually considered the condition to be an advantage when painting landscapes, since they looked perfectly blurred, an interesting contrast to his more detailed portraits.
Francis Bacon and dysmorphopsia
Francis Bacon was an Irish-born British artist from the 1900s that was known for his surreal and somewhat creepy artwork (which I don’t recommend looking at before going to sleep). In many interviews with art critics, he talked about how images appeared to be constantly changing, almost like an optical illusion. This is reflected in his work, which features heavily distorted images that feature abnormalities in face depiction. This runs consistent with dysmorphopsia, a brain condition that affects a person’s ability to perceive objects. The origin of his condition was never diagnosed, but common causes include meningioma tumors, brain injury, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Claude Monet and cataracts
Claude Monet was a French artist in the late 1800s and early 1900s that is considered one of the founders of French Impressionism. He is best known for his works depicting nature and the passing of time. From 1912 to 1922, his vision steadily declined due to cataracts that affected his color perception and vision acuity. Colors often looked muddy and had a yellowish tone to them, which he found highly frustrating, though he refused to get surgical treatment for this issue since he feared that his sight would get worse. Many of his paintings appear slightly blurry as a result of his failing vision, since that is how he perceived the world around him.
Georgia O’Keeffe and macular degeneration
Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist in the 1900s who is known for her paintings of flowers, New York skyscrapers, and landscapes of New Mexico. She began experiencing symptoms of age-related macular degeneration in 1964, describing it as a cloud entering her eyeballs. As her vision declined, she enlisted assistants to help her in painting her work, though would not give them credit as she said their contributions were “equivalent of a palette knife.”
Rembrandt van Rijn and stereoblindness
Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch artist in the 1600s who is considered one of the greatest artists in the history of art, being trained as a draughtsman, printmaker, and painter. Many of his self-portraits show his eyes turning outwards, which would cause a lack of depth perception, also known as stereoblindness. In turn, this lack of depth perception contributed to monocular vision, meaning each eye sees differently. This was often viewed as an advantage as it meant he could easily notice details in his subject that his peers with binocular vision (meaning vision is the same in both eyes) might not catch.
Mary Cassatt and diabetic retinopathy with cataracts
Mary Cassatt was an American artist in the 1800s and early 1900s who was a member of the Impressionist movement. Many of her paintings depict the public and private lives of women, with a special emphasis on mothers with children. She was good friends with Edgar Degas who was impressed by her art, and was the only American artist to participate in Impressionist exhibits. At the age of 56, she began to lose her sight, describing it as growing dimmer and dimmer, and was diagnosed with cataracts and diabetic retinopathy over a decade later. She switched from using oil paintings to pastels, favored large canvases over smaller ones, and started to draw more bold lines in her work instead of intricate details. She also used fewer colors due to her color vision deteriorating.
Pablo Picasso and strabismus
Pablo Picasso was a Spanish artist in the late 1800s and most of the 1900s who worked in a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpting, printmaking, ceramics, and more. He lived in France for a large part of his adult life and is credited with helping to found the Cubist movement. Some researchers believe that his interest in Cubist painting stemmed from his lack of depth perception- he preferred to show off his skills in shading, perspective, and occlusion whenever possible in his 2D works.
After learning about how vision impairment affected each of these ten prominent artists, it’s evident that having vision loss is not always a bad thing, but can be used to capture unique beauty and details that may otherwise go unseen. By knowing about these eye conditions, people can view the world through the eyes of their favorite artist- whether that be with crossed eyes, blurred eyes, or in another way entirely.