He may not have been able to fly like Superman or crawl up walls like Spiderman but apparently Claude Monet did have one thing in common with our two favourite superheroes – super vision.
We recently posted a story about the way the human eye perceives colour and in particular the ability for some lucky people to detect more colours than the rest of us (98 million more, to be exact). The idea that some of us are capable of extraordinary forms of perception intrigued us so we started to investigate other vision-related phenomena and found some interesting stories about certain artists. Namely the father of Impressionism, Claude Monet.
Famous for his loose, ‘impressionistic’ style of painting, Monet created controversy in the 19th Century Paris art world for breaking free from traditional painting styles and conventions with his aggressive brush strokes and visible workings of paint. But it was this style of painting that allowed Monet to explore the way natural light affected our perception of colours in the environment.
Monet’s most famous – or most beloved depending on how you look at it – paintings are those done at his cottage gardens outside Paris. Painted later in his career, Waterlilies, The Artist’s Garden, and The Garden Path are unique in that they give the viewer an acute insight into the impact that Monet’s deteriorating eyesight had on his painting. As progressive documentaries of Monet’s failing eyesight, the paintings in this series grew increasingly darker, filled with deep blues and reds in comparison to the lighter pastels of his early career. It wasn’t until 1923 that Monet succumbed to science and finally underwent the surgery that would repair his eyes and enable him to see “normally” again.
According to some theorists from both the art and scientific worlds, this was the operation that gave Monet more than just his old eyesight. Based upon a comparison of paintings done before and after the surgery of the same scenery, it’s been argued that this early form of cataract surgery provided Monet the ability to see ultraviolet hues undetectable to the average eye. In fact, those paintings done after the operation show a distinct difference in the way Monet perceived colours. Blue’s became more vibrant, richer and almost electric, there was much more violet throughout Monet’s palette than ever before.
But apparently this is not an uncommon occurrence in cataract patients.
Ultraviolet light exists all around us and the eye contains a lens that filters these rays out. When this lens becomes opaque due to cataracts, surgeries such as the one that Monet had that removes this, ultimately removes the eye’s natural UV filter, thus enabling people to see light that they were previously (and naturally, because it’s harmful) unable to detect. Monet’s later paintings were consistent with the side-effects reported by other aphakic patients (removal of the eye lens) who all confirmed perception of colours and light that had previously been invisible to the naked eye.
We love these kinds of stories, not only because they highlight the supposed hidden superpowers of the human body, but because it also reminds us that when it comes to colour we have barely scratched the surface of what we are capable of seeing.