Paul Cézanne’s eyes contained a subtle flaw. The late 19th century painter was famous for bridging Impressionism and the art movements that followed, but his eyes over the years had gradually changed shape, bending until they better resembled footballs than spheres. The change had no effect on objects nearby, but objects in the distance appeared blurred and indistinct. This phenomenon is an extremely common condition called myopia, or near-sightedness, which affects almost 40% of individuals in the United States today1. Unlike most people, Cézanne stubbornly rejected glasses. “Take away those vulgar things!” he purportedly shouted when offered spectacles2.
That’s how the story goes, at least. Dozens of articles discuss Cézanne’s myopia and fervent rejection of glasses, but they all share a common source for the tale – a book from 1970 called The World Through Blunted Sight by an ophthalmologist by the name of Patrick Trevor-Roper2. This book was the first to argue that Cézanne was myopic, and his myopia was responsible for the haziness of distant objects in Cézanne’s landscapes compared to the crispness of objects in his still-life paintings. Nowhere in the book does Trevor-Roper actually cite the source of this story, although he does cite an article from L’Eclair in 1906 in which the author describes Cézanne as, “an incomplete talent, whose imperfect vision kept his work undeveloped and always in the state of a sketch.” Such a critique is not sufficient to draw conclusions about Cézanne’s sight.
The somewhat unsubstantiated claim that Cézanne was myopic did not faze the art world, however, because most art critics and historians staunchly reject the idea that an artist’s physical or mental state contributes to the progress of their creative work. In one interview, Professor John House of the Courtald Institute of Art in London dismissed the theory that the impressionists were myopic as “rubbish,” and stated, “The artists know exactly why they are doing what they are doing3.” Such a strong rejection of the role of the artist’s sight in art raises the question: where does an artists’ physical vision end, and their creative vision begin?
Throughout his career, Cézanne painted one subject more than sixty times: Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain in Cézanne’s home region of Provence. The light that entered Cézanne’s eyes as he gazed at the mountain had already traveled roughly 150 million kilometers from the surface of the sun before it reached the mountain. The atoms that make up Mont Sainte-Victoire absorbed some of the light from the sun, and reflected the rest. The wavelength and intensity of the reflected light would, upon entering Cézanne’s eye, be translated into the colors and brightness that Cézanne saw and painted onto his canvas.
Light enters the eye at the cornea, where it is focused to enhance the strength of its signal in the same the way a magnifying glass can be used to start a fire. The pupil then acts as a shutter, to adjust how much light enters the eye. Finally, the light hits the lens where it is further focused to converge on light-sensing units in a region at the back of the eye called the retina. If the lens, cornea, or shape of the eyeball are not perfectly tuned, the light will be focused either in front or behind the retina. This results in either myopia, where far objects appear blurred, or hyperopia, where close objects appear blurred. The light-sensing units, also called photoreceptors, transform the light into an electrical signal that journeys via the optic nerve into the brain to be processed.
If this system seems straightforward, in reality it is deceptively dynamic. At this point, I’ve built a model of the eye that looks like this:
But in reality, the model looks more like this:
The brain is constantly communicating with the eye. It does so through a particular part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. Manipulating the signals to these nerves, the brain can finely adjust the size of the pupil, the amount of moisture in the outer and inner parts of the eye, and the amount of blood flow to the eye4. These small changes can have serious consequences for vision. For instance, changing the size of the pupil changes how much light can enter the eye. If one is in a bright room, too much light could blind you – hence the pupil constricts (becomes smaller) to shield light from entering. If the room is dark, one needs as much light as possible to enter one’s eyes, so the pupil will dilate (becomes larger).
Pupil size does not just change with response to brightness; it is highly regulated by internal emotional states5. The classic example is when an individual is faced with a threat that is frightening – the so-called “fight or flight” response. In this state, the heart races, the individual starts to sweat, and the pupils dilate to allow more light to enter the eyes. With more light comes a greater ability to resolve fine details about the threat.
The fight-or-flight response can be activated by more than just vision. If you have ever gone swimming in the ocean, you know the feeling of terror when a piece of seaweed unexpectedly wraps around your shin. In this situation, the unexpected touch travels to the brain, and the brain responds by initiating an alarm throughout the body. Part of the alarm involves the dilation of the pupil. In other words, the brain can directly alter the way an individual sees the world, and it can do so without the individual’s conscious awareness.
What does this mean for Cézanne and his paintings? As stated previously, Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire over sixty times. The mountain’s appearance changed depending on the time of day or season. Yet even if Cezanne had controlled for the mountain’s changing appearance by approaching the mountain at the same time of day in the same season, his autonomic nervous system would subconsciously alter his sight based on his internal and emotional state. In other words, Cézanne could not see the same mountain twice – even if he wanted to.
Although painters cannot choose their eyes or what they see, they have power to choose what they represent on their canvas. Even if Cézanne was myopic, it would not have altered his in-depth studies of perspective and color that set the stage for later movements such as Cubism. There is simply no point in classifying an artist separately from their eyes; they are one and the same. Cézanne might agree. Once, when discussing his Impressionist contemporary Claude Monet, Cézanne noted: “He is only an eye…but what an eye6!”
Tune in for Part 3 of “The World We See,” to learn why two X chromosomes is an advantage when it comes to seeing color.
- Vitale, Susan, Sperduto, Robert D., and Ferris Frederick L. “Increased Prevalence of Myopia in the United States Between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004.” JAMA Opthalmology, 2009, 127(12), pp. 1632-1639., doi: 10.1001/archophthalmol.2009.303.
- Trevor-Roper, Patrick D. The world through blunted sight: an inquiry into the influence of defective vision on art and character. Thames and Hudson, 1971.
- “Great artists ‘were short-Sighted’.” BBC News, BBC, 2 May 2003, news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/entertainment/2995291.stm.
- Mcdougal, David H., and Paul D. Gamlin. “Autonomic Control of the Eye.” Comprehensive Physiology, 2014, pp. 439–473., doi:10.1002/cphy.c140014.
- Fong, Joss. “Eye-Opener: Why Do Pupils Dilate in Response to Emotional States?” Scientific American, 2012.
- Douglas Cooper. Claude Monet: an exhibition of paintings. Arts Council, 1957.