Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
It is widely acknowledged in most accounts of his life, and well documented in his own correspondence with friends and colleagues, that from his late thirties until his final years, Edgar Degas suffered from an increasingly severe deterioration of his vision. It is perhaps less well known that Degas is now thought to have developed early onset macular degeneration.
Many of Degas’s contemporaries write about his affliction and its influence on his work, perhaps none more eloquently than Walter Sickert, who, in 1923, published these observations in Burlington Magazine:
It was natural that, during the years when I knew [Degas], from ’83 onwards, he should sometimes have spoken of the torment that it was to draw, when he could only see around the spot at which he was looking, and never the spot itself. When we consider the immense output of the later half of his life, the high intellectual value of it, and the generous store of beauty that forms its contribution to the history of art, the debonair heroism of such a life, its inspired adaptation to conditions apparently intolerable, must remain a monument for amazement and for respect.
It may safely be said that the curious and unique development of the art of pastel that this obstacle compelled him to evolve would not have come into being but for his affliction. A larger scale became a necessity. For the shiny medium of oil paint was substituted the flat one of pastel. Minute delicacies of detailed execution had to be abandoned. A very natural dread that the affliction might grow made, of the necessary delays that oil painting exacts, an intolerable anxiety. A pastel is always ready to be gone on with.