Disease and Art

Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels…

Pablo Picasso


People with only one functioning eye, or eyes that do not fix together will generally have stereoblindness describing a lack of normal binocular vision. It is recently suggested that many of the great portrait artists might have suffered such a defect. Indeed art teachers often instruct students to close one eye in order to flatten what they see. One often quoted example is Rembrandt (1606-1669), whose portraits reveal that his eyes did not propery align. This could have helped him to flatten images he saw on to a two-dimensional canvas. 


Colour deficiencies

There are numerous artists who were supposedly colour blind, describing an inability to differentiate between certain colours. In most cases one has to assume that their particular styles were a direct result of this. The paintings of Ferdinand Léger (1881-1955) characterized by bold (often drab) colours in geometric forms, was red-green colourblind and would ask his wife for the names of some colours when preparing his palette. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is also suggested to have suffered exclusively using only three fundamental colors of red, yellow and blue. John Constable’s (1776-1837) colouring of his landscapes which are primarily yellow and brown have abeen linked to blue-green colour-blindness.


Charles Meryon (1821-1868) upon discovering he was colourblind gave up with colours and made his fame through etching.


Clifton Ernest Pugh (1924–1990) was an Australian artist who suffered from protanope describing an inability to detect of red, an anomaly shared by his brother and nephew, while fellow Australian artist Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) was unable to properly distinguish blue and yellow leading to the famous style of colour seen in his landscape paintings.


A further celebrated artist Eugène Carrière is often described as having total colourblindness, his palette generally consisting of only grays, blues and browns.


Interestingly, there are also numerous cartoon artitsts who have colour blindness.


Albert Uderzo, the creator of Asterix and Obelix, as a boy would marked his pens to differentiate colours though stopped colouring a long time ago. Frank Dunne had to rely on his sons to help him distinguish red and green while Alex Toth (1928-2006) (Hanna-Barbera), Tim Sale (1956-) (Batman and Heroes) and John Byrne (1950-) (Marvel comics) are all world renowned artists.


Cataracts can affect the clarity and sharpness of vision as well as the perceived colour; acting as yellow filters they reduce transmission of the shorter wavelength colours to the retina like the violets, blues and greens. A number of artists have demonstrated this with paintings losing blues and violets and becoming predominated with reds, browns and yellows. Turner (1775-1851) is well thought to have suffered from these with his later paintings consisting more of reds and browns. This was also the case for Claude Monet (1840-1926) with his increasingly blurry browny paintings. These interestingly, took on a more bluish tint following an operation for the condition. The high incidence of cataracts among artists of this time has led to the quote that Impressionism is the world seen through cataracts.



It is further suggested that Impressionism may have also resulted from myopia or short-sightedness, leaving a lack of detail and more a focus to red. Artists such as Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919), Degas (1838-1917), Pissarro (1830-1903), Cézanne (1839-1906), Matisse (1869-1964) and Rodin (1840-1917) all suffered which may have influenced their painting styles. In fact Renoir was known to step back from the canvas so that it was out of focus, while Cézanne, when offered spectacles raged, “take away those vulgar things!” Edgar Degas had to later turned to sculpture as his sight progressively worsened. It could therefore be argued that myopia may have allowed the artist to abstract the general forms and colors of the scene being painted.



Resulting in optic nerve damage, this disease can lead to complete and permanent blindness in affected eye(s). Loss of vision can occur suddenly in the case of closed angle glaucoma, while open angle glaucoma results in a gradual blindness, often over many years where a patient may not notice that they have lost vision until the disease has progressed significantly.


Closed angle glaucoma blinded Jules Chéret (1836-1932). Often known as the father of the modern poster, suddenly became completely blind in later life and was never able to paint again. The landscape artist Auguste Ravier (1814-1895) suffered from glaucoma in only one eye and so was able to work with his remaining eye, which in later life then developed a cataract.


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) as been suggested to have suffered from a form of intermittent closed angle glaucoma. This is mainly suspected from his painting of coloured haloes around sources of light in some of his most famous paintings. The fact that these haloes appeared almost exclusively in night settings supports the observations that the spontaneous attacks of this glaucoma tend to occur during periods of low illumination due to pupillary dilatation in a mid-dilated state.


Louis Valtat (1869-1952) suffered from what was in all likelihood open-angle glaucoma, with a gradual loss of bison finally forcing him to give up his career towards the end his life. Another suffered such gradual loss of eyesight was Roger Bissière (1886-1964), so gradual was it that he only began to really realize he had the disease when he admitted to himself that when looking straight ahead he was unable to see the top of the canvas. However, he decided to risk an operation and following this, with his new vision he completely changed the style of painting and became even more famous for his abstract.

Physical defects

Perhaps the most well known example would be Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), who inherited a bone disorder known as pycnodysostosis. However, it was his short stature that helped define his unique artistic style, particularly the ‘‘cut-off’’ technique subsequently adopted by many other painters, where objects and figures are truncated by the edge of the frame and his often unusual angles.


A number of other artists have also suffered from various conditions resulting in them having to alter their styles. Paul Klee (1879 - 1940), for example suffered from scleroderma which results in the skin hardening and can also affect muscles, joints and internal organs. This restricted the fine motor movements in his hands and joints, having a direct impact on the work he made, his later style was strongly influenced by the disease which eventually killed him.


A number of the Great Masters of art appeared to have suffered debilitating joint diseases in their later life. Michelangelo (1475-1564) had symptoms of gout depicted in a fresco by Raphael, now in the Vatican Palace, which depicts the artist with a deformed right knee - a result of the disease. This was painted at the same time that Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Gout is characterized by inflammation of the joints due to a buildup of uric acid, and can be precipitated by lead. It was well known that the artist was obsessed with his work, often going for days consuming only bread and wine - wine containers at that time were lead lined. This disease has also been strongly suggested to have affected Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Rubens (1577-1640) also suffered from chronic pain affecting the joints in his hands, feet and knees. It is suspected he might have suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and this would sometimes leave him bed-ridden with intense pain.



Mental disorders

A number of artists have been affected by neurodegenerative diseases. Willem de Kooning’s work became more abstract during his development of Alzheimer’s disease possibly due to an impairment of his visual memory while the Lewy body dementia of Mervyn Peake resulted in visual hallucinations that he depicted. Salvador Dali (1904-1989) developed Parkinson's disease in his 60s that severely interfered with his work. Though he still continued to exert influence as a source of ideas, he could not paint and was caught out in the later 1970s signing thousands of sheets of blank paper, falsely rendering anything later added to the paper a Dali lithograph.


Vincent van Gogh was well described to have suffered from epilepsy. His physician, Dr. Gauchet whom he always painted with foxglove in his hand, treated him with digitalis, a drug that may have led to led to his preference for yellow colours amongst a number of further supposed affects seen in his art.


There are also many artists affected with mood disorders. Michelangelo, for instance suffered from depression, depicting his illness in the portrait of Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel. Edvar Munch was inflicted with a serious and progressive anxiety disorder that he depicted in his most famous pieces. Interestingly, his father also suffered from depression and his sister had a mental illness. Munch

The German artist Kathy Kollwitz also suffered from anxiety with further reports suggesting she may have been further affected by another neurological disorder called Alice in Wonderland syndrome, commonly associated with migraines where there are sudden alterations in visual perception, hence the name. In her early life she noted episodes where objects appeared to grow larger or smaller and how sometimes she felt she was diminishing in size. This may explain why Kollwitz’s artistic subjects are often shaped with large hands and faces.