Is it true that Claude Monet saw ultraviolet light and also painted these “impossible colors”?

You know the wonderful ones water lilies painted by French painter Claude Oscar Monet (Paris, 1840 – Giverny, 1926), “father” of expressionism, repeated endlessly with variations in light and perspective? We all studied them at school and some perhaps even had the opportunity to see them live. Well, not everyone knows, however, that the extraordinary color tone that we can observe in Monet's works, specifically the last of his production, could hide characteristics that are out of the ordinary, deriving from aeye operation to which the painter underwent due to a bilateral cataract and to a particular type of eyeglasses worn subsequently. According to scholars, this intervention-glasses association may have allowed him to see ultraviolet light and to also paint in this wavelength. Let's delve deeper into the question.

Monet and cataracts in his eyes

In the early years of the twentieth century Monet had already achieved celebrity in the Parisian environment thanks to his impressionist paintings: at a certain point, however, perhaps because he used lead-based paints, he developed the cataract, that is, a clouding of the lens of the eye. This was a kind of death sentence for the artists of the time, because it meant that he would soon become blind. His only hope was a surgery to remove it which, however, unlike today, was not a routine operation at all, but was dangerous and often accelerated the onset of blindness. At first Monet hoped to do without it, but his ability to paint began to deteriorate rapidly: he was almost no longer able to see (and in fact he labeled all the colors to understand what they were) and created works that were initially very dark and then, to compensate, with absurd and almost surreal colors.

Consequently, in 1923, he decided to undergo the operation (but only on one eye, the right, to still have the other in case of failure). Actually the operation went well and even opened one new phase of his career. According to studies on his latest works, in fact, he modified the way in which his sight worked because it may have given him the ability to see colors beyond the normal human spectrum, up to to ultraviolet rays.

Monet, ultraviolets and “special glasses”

The eyes see color through special cells called “cones”. Human beings have three types and therefore the visible color spectrum is quite broad. The spectrum of human vision starts around red (750 nanometers) and extends to violet (380 nanometers), but in addition to normal violet light, there is ultraviolet light, or UV light, which has shorter wavelengths and it is invisible to us because it is covered by the lens (although technically it is perceivable): many animals can see this UV light, some even depend on this ability to survive, such as bees.

Now, after the operation, Monet's eye was no longer protected by the crystal clear, which is the “natural lens” of the eye: modern operations replace it, but at the time it was not possible. Monet saw little or nothing (like many of the people operated on at the time, it was not really to be considered a guaranteed success) and he was desperate: then the ophthalmologist Jacques Mawas gave him special (and very expensive) glasses, made with Zeiss, to compensate. According to the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, this could mean that he became able to see UV light in one eye.

Monet and possible cyanopsia

This, however, does not necessarily explain the “all blue” water lilies and gardens of Monet's latest production. According to another study, published by the University of Calgary, the painter would have developed the cyanopsiaa visual disorder that led him to see everything in his eyes shades of blue, but only in the operated eye, while he still saw in a yellow-brown shade in the other, which had not been operated on and still had the caratact. This change in color perception, then mitigated by the special colored lenses we talked about before, would actually have disturbed Monet because he was continually disoriented by the different shades seen by his two eyes. The artist, according to scholars, may have reacted by painting with one eye covered at a time: this could be the reason why, in this period, Monet created paintings alternating “blue-green” tones (using his right eye operated) to those of the “red-yellow” (using the left eye with the cataract).

yellow van gogh