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, 30 (2), 287-303

Vision, Eye Disease, and Art: 2015 Keeler Lecture

Affiliations

Vision, Eye Disease, and Art: 2015 Keeler Lecture

M F Marmor. Eye (Lond).

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine normal vision and eye disease in relation to art. Ophthalmology cannot explain art, but vision is a tool for artists and its normal and abnormal characteristics may influence what an artist can do. The retina codes for contrast, and the impact of this is evident throughout art history from Asian brush painting, to Renaissance chiaroscuro, to Op Art. Art exists, and can portray day or night, only because of the way retina adjusts to light. Color processing is complex, but artists have exploited it to create shimmer (Seurat, Op Art), or to disconnect color from form (fauvists, expressionists, Andy Warhol). It is hazardous to diagnose eye disease from an artist's work, because artists have license to create as they wish. El Greco was not astigmatic; Monet was not myopic; Turner did not have cataracts. But when eye disease is documented, the effects can be analyzed. Color-blind artists limit their palette to ambers and blues, and avoid greens. Dense brown cataracts destroy color distinctions, and Monet's late canvases (before surgery) showed strange and intense uses of color. Degas had failing vision for 40 years, and his pastels grew coarser and coarser. He may have continued working because his blurred vision smoothed over the rough work. This paper can barely touch upon the complexity of either vision or art. However, it demonstrates some ways in which understanding vision and eye disease give insight into art, and thereby an appreciation of both art and ophthalmology.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
Retinal organization for contrast. (a) A core of photoreceptors feed into a bipolar cell, while a surrounding ring of photoreceptors stimulates horizontal cells to inhibit the response. This creates a center-surround receptive field. (b) Edge recognition. A spot of light in the center or surround will excite or inhibit—but overall illumination (third example) balances the two and is hardly recognized. An edge (bottom example) illuminates the center and surround disparately, and is perceived well. Image details: (a, b) M F Marmor, after reference 2. Notes: Google: Google Art Project (free Access); MMA: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA (free access); MFM: Michael F Marmor; NGA: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA (free access); Wiki: Wikimedia Commons and Foundation (free access).
Figure 2
Figure 2
Contrast recognition. (a) We perceive squares properly as black or white whether in or out of the shadow, but the circled squares are actually of equal brightness (see above the puzzle). (b) The center region looks lighter than the sides because of the sharp light-dark junctions. If you cover one or another of the junctions, you will see that the cores of the regions are identical. Image details: (a) © M F Marmor. (b) M F Marmor, from reference 2.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Contrast in art. (a) Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190–1225): Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight (early thirteenth century). This Chinese brush painting creates light-dark junctions to give an illusion of dark rocks and mountains. (b) Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) (1571–1610): Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (ca. 1604–5). This painting shows extreme chiaroscuro, with a bright figure on a nearly black background. (c) Georges Seurat (1859–1891): A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (detail) (1884). In this part of Seurat's grand canvas, the water brightness, and even the lawn brightness, has been varied to contrast with overlying objects. Image details: (a) Ink on silk (25 × 27 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: gift of John M Crawford Jr, in honor of Alfreda Murck, 1986. (b) Oil on canvas (173 × 132 cm). Google Art Project, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, William Rockhill Nelson Trust. (c) Oil on canvas (208 × 308 cm). Google: Art Institute of Chicago.
Figure 4
Figure 4
Light and dark. (a) Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684): Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting (ca. 1663–65). This painting is beautifully composed, but the lighting is rather flat. (b) Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664). This similar scene is much more dramatic because of the greater differences between light and dark. Image details: (a) Oil on canvas (40 × 36 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Widener Collection. (b) Oil on canvas (58 × 69 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.
Figure 5
Figure 5
Picturing day and night. (a) William Keith (1838–1911) Mount Shasta (late nineteenth century). This shows a sunny scene, even when the light bouncing off the picture is much less bright. (b) Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): The Potato Eaters (1885). An indoor scene would be evident even if the image were viewed outdoors. (c) Cone response curves show only about a 100-fold (2 log unit) response range, which adjusts according to ambient lighting. This lets us recognize the same objects in a dim room or the outdoor sun. Image details: (a) Oil on canvas (24 × 30 cm): Iris & B Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA: Gift of Mrs. William Babcock. (b) Oil on canvas (82 × 114 cm). Google Art Project: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. (c) M F Marmor, after reference 2.
Figure 6
Figure 6
Seeing colors. (a) Stare at the black dot amid the four primary colors for 30 s, then look at the dot on the right. You will see complementary colors that represent the color contrast mechanisms of the retina. (b) Color constancy (from Dale Purves): Rubik's cubes under white, yellow and blue illumination still look like a Rubik's cube. However, when the red squares are isolated (see above the arrows), the colors appear quite different. (c) Details from eight different Monet paintings of water lilies at his estate in Giverny. Image details: (a) M F Marmor, after reference 2. (b) Images devised by Dale Purves, MD: free access from http://www.purveslab.net/seeforyourself. (c) Detailed views of eight paintings entitled Waterlilies, all oil on canvas. In order: Google Art Project: Musee d'Orsay, Paris; Wikimedia Commons and Foundation (photograph Schlaier): Neue Pinothek, Munich, Germany; Google: Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, Sakura City, Japan; Google: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, ACT, Australia; Wikimedia (photograph Bildum): National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo, Japan; Google: Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: The Walter H and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H and Leonore Annenbrg, 1998, Bequest of Walter H Annenberg, 2002; Wikimedia (unknown photograph): Dallas Museum of Art.
Figure 7
Figure 7
Color vs form. (a) Equiluminance. Green-on-red lettering is hard to read when the colors have equal brightness. The grey scale version shows how the lettering disappears. (b) Claude Monet (1840–1926): Sunrise (Marine) (1873). The water glistens in the red sun, because of equiluminance of the reflections and water. The grey scale detail shows how the red disappears. (c) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938): Seated Woman (Dodo) (1907) and Uprooted Tree (1922). Both of these paintings use unusual colors but the grey scale views show why only the woman looks realistic: the brightness cues in the forest are quite obscure. (d) Kirchner, The Trees in the Albertplatz in Dresden (1910–1911). This drawing shows a lovely group of trees in a square, surrounded by buildings with yellow facades. We are hardly concerned by the location the color fields because we recognize the objects by their black outlines. Image details: (a) © M F Marmor. (b) Oil on canvas (50 x 61 cm). Google Art Project: J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA. (c) Oil on canvas (112x114 cm). Seated Woman: Wikimedia Commons and Foundation (photograph Rufus 46): Pinothek der Moderne, Munich Germany; oil on canvas (100 × 120 cm). Uprooted Tree: Wikimedia (photograph Hajotthu): Sprengel Museum, Hanover, Germany. (d) Crayon and pencil on paper (27 × 35 cm). Wikimedia (photograph Sotheby's): sold by Sotheby's in 2012.
Figure 8
Figure 8
El Greco's elongations. (a) El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1541–1614): St. Jerome as Scholar, ca. 1610. The saint is elongated vertically, but his left hand is horizontal; and the neither the book nor his tunic buttons seem distorted. (b) El Greco: Christ Cleansing the Temple (probably before 1570). This early painting is quite realistic. Image details: (a) Oil on canvas (108 × 89 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. (b) Oil on panel (65 × 83). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Samuel H Kress Collection.
Figure 9
Figure 9
Impressionism. (a) Claude Monet: Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun) (1891). This is a study of light, not of blur. (b) Claude Monet: Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867). This earlier work is painted realistically with precise details of both near and distant objects. (c) Auguste Renoir (1841–1919): Two Young Girls at the Piano (1892). This painting, done in the Impressionist period, shows precise details of hair, candlesticks, chair, etc. Image details: (a) Oil on canvas (65 x 92 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: HO Havemeyer Collection, bequest of Mrs HO Havemeyer, 1929. (b) Oil on canvas (98 x 130 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: purchase, with contributions and funds by friends of the Museum, 1967. (c) Oil on canvas (112 × 86 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.
Figure 10
Figure 10
Presbyopia. Details of works by by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Euphronios (c. 540-470/480 BCE). (a) Portrait of a Woman (1633). This early painting is almost photographic. (b) Self-Portrait (1659). This painting shows his expressive late style, with heavy impasto (thick applications of paint). (c) Lucretia (1664). This painting was done 5 years later, but has little impasto, appropriate to the subject. (d) Portion of an Athenian red figure krater (c. 515 BCE). Image details: (a) Oil on wood (68 x 50 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913. (b) Oil on canvas (85 × 66 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Andrew Mellon Collection. (c) Oil on canvas (120 × 101 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Andrew W Mellon Collection. (d) Krater (pottery) is 46 × 55 cm. Wikimedia Commons and Foundation (photograph J Ardiles): Villa Giulia, Rome, Italy.
Figure 11
Figure 11
Color-blindness. (a) Color circles, normal and deuteranopic. (b) Jens (Johannsen) (1934–2010) was deuteranopic: Fields of Wheat (1980s). The painting (left) shows reddish roofs, but is otherwise predominately amber and blue-grey. Deuteranopic simulation (right) makes little difference except for loss of the roofs. (c) Baccio Bandinelli (1493–1560) was color-blind: Leda and the Swan (ca. 1512). The painting is beautifully drawn, but Leda's flesh is pasty without highlights. (d) Details of paintings by Raphael (1483-1520), who had normal vision: The Small Cowper Madonna (ca. 1505); and Bandinelli: Leda and the Swan. Deuteranopic simulation destroys the warmth of Raphael‘s flesh tones, but Leda is hardly affected by the conversion. Image details: Deuteranopic simulations through Coblis: www.color-blind.com/coblis (a) M F Marmor. (b) Oil on canvas (∼ 80 × 100 cm). Image provided by the artist; simulation by M F Marmor. (c) Oil on panel (128 × 101). © Chancellery of Paris Universities. Used by permission. Simulation, M F Marmor. (d) Raphael: Oil on canvas (full painting 60 × 44 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Widener Collection. Simulations, M F Marmor.
Figure 12
Figure 12
Cataract effects. (a) Color chart as it would appear through a dense brunescent cataract. Note the loss of color distinctions, disappearance of white, and darkening of blue. (b) Photographs of Monet's lily pond at Giverny showing how it would appear thorough moderate cataract (Monet 1915–17) and dense cataract (Monet 1922). (c) Monet paintings of the lily pond in these same years. Japanese Footbridge (1899) is quite representational. Waterlilies (1915) show strong flat fields of blue, perhaps seeking distinction from the leaves. Japanese Footbridge (1922) shows not only rough application of paint, but surprisingly strong orange color. (d) Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851): The early Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed (1818) is realistic in style, but suffused with yellow. The mature Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (1843) is almost impressionistic, but still shows precise details near and far. Image details: (a) © M F Marmor. (b) Photograph of Giverny: © Elizabeth Murray, www.elizabethmurray.com. Used by permission. Simulations: Simulations, M F Marmor (From reference 14). (c) From top to bottom: 1899: Oil on canvas (81 × 102 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Gift of Victoria Nebeker Coberliy, in memory of her son John W Mudd, and Walter H and Leonore Annenberg. 1915: Oil on canvas (151 × 201 cm). Wikimedia Commons and Foundation (photograph Schlaier): Neue Pinothek, Munich, Germany. 1922: Oil on canvas (94 × 89). Google Art Project: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, USA. (d) From top to bottom: 1818: Oil on canvas (185 × 259 cm). Google: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, USA. 1843: Oil on canvas (62 × 93 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Given in memory of Governor Alvan T Fuller by the Fuller Foundation, Inc.
Figure 13
Figure 13
Degas' visual acuity. The chart shows different estimations, but all show a steady decline from excellent acuity in 1870 (in his best eye) to worse than 20/200 by 1905. Image details: M F Marmor, after reference 16.
Figure 14
Figure 14
Changing detail in pastels by Edgar Degas (1834–1917). These images are scaled and cropped slightly to show Degas' technique over a 15-year period. Left: Woman Combing her Hair (ca. 1885) shows careful shading and musculature. Middle: Woman Combing her Hair (ca. 1888–90) has shading lines further apart and less precise. Right: After the bath (1899) has rather coarse outlining and shading. Image details: Left: Pastel on paper (52 × 51 cm). Wikimedia Commons and Foundation (photograph The Yorck Project): Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia. Middle: Pastel on paper (61 × 46 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Gift of Mr and Mrs Nate B Spingold, 1956. Right: Pastel on paper (62 × 65 cm). Wikimedia (photo by J-P Dalbéra): Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Figure 15
Figure 15
Simulation of Degas's view of his late work. (a) Woman Drying Her Hair (c. 1905) is very roughly drawn. (b) In Degas view, with 20/300 visual acuity at the time, the shading appears smoothed and much more refined. Image details: (a) Pastel on paper (71 × 63 cm). Norton Simon Art Foundation, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA. (b) Simulation, M F Marmor, after reference 2.
Figure 16
Figure 16
Degas sculptures over the years. (a) Horse Rearing (1880s) is tiny (12 inches tall) but beautifully finished with fine details of the face, hooves, etc. (b) Dancer Holding Her Right Foot in Her Right Hand (ca. 1900–1911) is 18 inches tall, but roughly finished without any details at all. Image details: (a) Beeswax over metal armature (31 × 20 × 27 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. (b) Beeswax over metal armature (50 × 24 × 38 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon.

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