Saturday, December 19

To paint the speed of light ...

For me, one of the most moving wonders of Claude Monet's art was his valiant struggle to continue painting despite severe vision problems that brought him to the brink of blindness late in his life.

From around 1905 to 1923, his cataracts worsened, greatly affecting how he saw colors, light, the boundaries of objects. This had great impact on his work. By 1922 he was nearly blind and had to stop painting, before having one of his eyes operated on in 1923. He declined to go ahead with surgery on the other eye, but did resume painting and continued to work until a few months before his death in 1926. For a fuller discussion of how these problems affected his vision and painting, I recommend the article "The Blurry World of Claude Monet Recreated" on the Live Science website.

I mention this as an introduction to the stirring poem "Monet Refuses the Operation", in which the poet Lisa Mueller imagines Monet explaining to the doctor why he will not undergo further surgery. I read and heard this on the Chicago Poetry Tour available at the Poetry Foundation website.

'Monet Refuses the Operation' by Lisel Mueller
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation” from Second Language. Louisiana State University Press, 1996

For more information on Lisa Mueller see the brief biography elsewhere on the Poetry Foundation site. The photos of the paintings are from Monetalia, an excellent website on all things Monet.

Top: Claude Monet. Weeping Willow and Water-Lily Pond. 1919. Oil on canvas. Private collection
Here: Houses of Parliament, London. 1901. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA


  1. Nice. My familiarity with Monet stems mainly from his (slowly disappearing) place in pop culture, and I must admit that I was unaware he was losing his vision towards the end.

  2. Speaking of Chicago, some years ago I was fortunate enough to see the huge traveling exhibit of Monet's works at the Art Institute. It was thrilling. Love the willow piece! ;^)

  3. How strange that he's known as one of the painters of light as he was encroached by darkness. I didn't know about his failing eyesight. Thank goodness it didn't fail his paintings. Love them.

  4. I love Monet's London paintings but don't know anything about him, particularly that he had failing eyesight.Interesting posts, thanks for these.Great poem too.

  5. Nice to see you on the blog, TFE. I want to say again how much I enjoyed your festival of light post and urge everyone to check it out and participate. I will probably not be posting anything on that day, but will light a candle at the appointed hour --- and thus reserve the right to contribute by homage to a dearly departed love one at a later date!

  6. Several painters had eye problems, but still their work is unmistakably theirs. To me, their work is not "less" in his later period, because it does not have to look realistic (in my opinion). Glad I found you!

  7. Hi, Jeanette. I'm glad you found your way here, too. I certainly agree that the paintings made in the years of struggling with failing eyesight are not lesser works. And it is not just vision problems that great artists have had to grapple with -- Renoir produced masterpieces while severely limited by crippling rheumatoid arthritis, literally wedging his paintbrushes between his deformed and pained fingers.

    Well, on a brighter note, I visited your Art Notes blog and liked it a lot. Let's keep in touch

  8. I'm back to thank you for the "follow" of my blog! Have a Happy New Year!

  9. Warmest, woolly wishes for a wonderful 2010, LLL!

  10. Thanks, willow, same to you and to everyone reading. As I look forward to the new year now upon us, one of the most heartening prospects is the promise of continuing, deepening and expanding these blog friendships. All the best to you in 2010. I will resume posting again very soon.

  11. I've seen that painting many, many times at the Art Institute. What a revelation this information about Monet is. The poem so beautifully expresses the transformation I live for, that I almost can't absorb it. (I think that's my brain getting in the way.)

    I've made my way through the back door and am now through your 2009 posts. It's fun to see the beginnings of the pillow. I'm intrigued by how blogs evolve and get shaped by those who visit.


"Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods" — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Go ahead, leave a comment. The gods can holler a bit if they have to ...