Edgar Degas was a French painter, sculptor, and engraver. He is best known for his paintings of dancers, and he excelled in capturing their movement and artistry.
Degas’ vision problems began in 1870, at age 36, probably due to retinopathy, or problems with his retina. He found it difficult to tolerate bright light, especially sunlight, and preferred to work indoors in more light-controlled environments, such as the opera and ballet stages he depicted in many of his paintings.
In 1874, at age 40, Degas also developed a loss of central vision, possibly from macular degeneration. His vision continued to deteriorate and by 1891, at age 57, he could no longer read print. As his vision changed, however, Degas learned to adapt. He began working with pastels instead of oils (since pastels require less precision), and took up sculpture, printmaking, and photography.
To better understand how Degas’s vision changed, it’s helpful to compare his paintings.
Degas painted A Woman with Chrysanthemums, which contains much fine detail, in 1865, when he was 31:
In contrast, Degas painted Two Dancers, which contains broad brush strokes and very little fine detail, in the period between 1890-1898, when his vision problems were well advanced:
Edgar Degas completed this pastel titled “Woman Combing Her Hair,” in 1886. During the mid-1880s, he first began to talk about his “infirmity of sight.
By the time Degas completed his eyesight had dropped to somewhere between 20/200 and 20/400. Marmor notes that after 1900, there was virtually no detailing of faces or clothing in Degas’ artwork.