Claude Monet room painting

How ZEISS lenses influenced the artist Claude Monet's creative process

Claude Monet was the poster child for impressionism. But the French artist initially lacked both fame and a steady income. In the winter of his artistic career, he even had to contend with cataracts. But he never gave up on painting the world as he saw it – until he almost went blind, in fact. Finally, it was a pair of glasses with ZEISS lenses that helped him see the world in color once more.

Claude Monet table in chrome yellow room

A cat is sleeping in the dining room. She doesn't snore, but that's because she's made of porcelain. Kutani porcelain. Claude Monet's home is certainly a cozy one. The dining room table can accommodate twelve people, and the room itself is bathed in a deep chrome yellow. Ignited by the wallpaper, "thanks to the sun that floods in, past the rose arches just outside the window," as writer Marc Elder described it after paying Monet a visit. A warm, all-consuming light. As his most treasured piece of all, the cat had pride of place in Monet's home. Anyone could recognize her simply through touch, even if they couldn't see her.

Claude Monet Japanese cat fireplace

Vision in general and the ability to see particular things were both characteristic of Claude Monet (1840 to 1926). Impressionists focused on showcasing both the visible and the invisible. On capturing moments. Their own view and introspective method were essential to their craft. But Monet's battle with cataracts endangered his vision, and this concerned him tremendously. This was evident from his letters and notes. But help was at hand – and it came in the form of an eye surgery and a pair of glasses.

Video: The magic of Claude Monet

Marianne Mathieu Musée Marmottan Monet in front of painting

Marianne Mathieu, Scientific Director of the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris

Art that persists

Claude Monet is considered to be the great impressionist of all time. "He was hailed as a master by both his peers and fellow impressionists. He was also deemed the father of abstract modern art," says Marianne Mathieu, the Scientific Director of the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.  

It's a hot day, one on which a gentle breeze cools you down like a fan. But indoors, there's a distinct calmness. The permanent exhibition includes a painting that is lauded as marking the birth of impressionism: "Impression" (1872). It depicts the sunrise over the port of Le Havre. And it's one of the most valuable paintings in the world. At the time Monet had already made a name for himself, but he was still plagued by money troubles. That said, he did earn a pretty penny drawing caricatures as a young man. In a letter to fellow painter and friend Frédéric Bazille, Monet wrote: "I never thought you'd abandon me like this." And: "Send me the money as soon as possible." Art historians have described Monet as a bon vivant. His favorite dish was woodcock with asparagus. But he also wanted to provide for his wife Camille, his model and muse. The couple had two sons – the question was, how would he make ends meet? Especially since his vision was slowly deteriorating.

Dr. Dorothea Entrup, Museum Barberini Potsdam and Monet Expert

Dr. Dorothea Entrup, Museum Barberini Potsdam and Monet Expert

A conversation about the painter, how his eyesight impacted his creative process, and how he became impressionism's founding father.

  • Painting sunrise, 1872 by Claude Monet

    "Impression, Sunrise" (1872) by Claude Monet, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France

The garden that inspired a breakthrough

Monet did eventually receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. His work was showcased at the top Paris galleries to great success; he sold many paintings and, in 1890, had sufficient funds to purchase a house in Giverny, which lies to the northwest of Paris. Over the years he cultivated a vast garden in two parts. Plants and flowers from all over the world still flourish there to this day. Tall ferns frame the flowerbeds, while iris-entwined bridges pepper the garden. And then there are the poppies that reminded Monet of the corn fields he so delighted in painting.

The birds chirp happily in the treetops. The flora clings to a pond of scattered water lilies: this is probably Monet's best-known subject, for which he drew his inspiration from the Japanese artwork he so revered – even his porcelain cat was an import from Japan. It was this paradise he created that inspired him to paint so often in series.

"It suddenly dawned on me how wonderful my pond was, and I immediately reached for my palette," wrote Monet in his personal notebook. He went on to paint hundreds of water lily scenes. And it was in Giverny that Monet noticed the deterioration in his vision. "Cataracts caused him to perceive light and colors in a completely different way. And since he always painted exactly what he saw, this transformed his painting style," says Marianne Mathieu.

It led him to paint the Japanese bridge at the heart of his vast garden and the water lilies in a way that recalls abstract art more than it does impressionism. Cataract causes the eye's lens to go cloudy and a person's vision to become "misty," with colors becoming increasingly indistinct. Without treatment, cataract patients slowly lose their eyesight.

  • Claude Monet garden water lily pond
  • Claude Monet garden with house
  • Claude Monet garden with bridge

It might not have been the ideal solution, but a pair of glasses were the only way Monet would be able to see anything and continue painting.

Barbara Pierscionek

Vision Scientist, Staffordshire University

Monet's eye care

But at the time, ophthalmology was undergoing a quantum leap. In 1900, Swedish ophthalmologist and subsequent Nobel laureate Allvar Gullstrand began working with ZEISS. In 1908 Moritz von Rohr utilized the fruits of this collaboration, which included the slit lamp used for eye exams and the world's first precision lenses, to begin setting up the eyeglass department at ZEISS. Another product of the collaboration was the development of aspheric lenses for those patients who had undergone cataract surgery.

These strong plus lenses (or aphakia lenses) compensated for the extremely defective vision patients had to endure after cataract surgery when the eye, now devoid of its natural lens, could no longer effectively diffract the light entering it to project a clear image on the retina. The second effect of cataract surgery is that once the cloudy lens is removed, colors can be seen much more clearly once again. This knowledge led to the launch of the Katral lenses in 1912. That same year, Monet was diagnosed with cataract.  "I was no longer able to see colors as brightly as I used to," wrote Monet in 1918 in his personal notebook.

"Reds appeared dull, pinks washed-out, and there were many colors I could simply no longer recognize." The midday sun became too bright for him to bear, and in 1923 he finally consented to surgery after buckling under the pressure. "Back then, a surgery like this was a major risk. Hygiene standards were poor, but Monet was about to lose his eyesight," says Professor Barbara Pierscionek, Vision Scientist at England's Staffordshire University. The surgery involved removing the eye's natural lens. And artificial lens replacements were not yet available.

"While not ideal, glasses were his only chance of being able to see at all, and of painting ever again," says Barbara Pierscionek. Monet tried out different pairs of glasses. One of these is said to have had a bluing effect on the lenses. The glasses allowed Monet to perceive color in a greater intensity. "He found that the ZEISS lenses helped him see the best," says Dr. Ralf Dahm, Director of Scientific Management at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Mainz. Dahm is a biologist who knows the ins and outs of transparent tissue, but he is also an art enthusiast who delves into how eye diseases have negatively impacted different artists.

  • Various works by Claude Monet, Museé Marmottan Monet, Paris, France

    Various works by Claude Monet, Museé Marmottan Monet, Paris, France

Claude Monet garden branch with blossom

The colors return

So Monet was able to see in color once more – and they drew him like the flowers in his garden drew the bees. For Monet, this was more than just a pair of glasses. It was the only way he could continue living his life. Many of his friends had advised him against having the surgery – and some underestimated the value of a decent pair of glasses. But in the end, Monet triumphed. He was finally able to put the finishing touches to a major project of his: a water lily series that he bequeathed to France. In his paintings it's clear that he could now better perceive shades of blue.

"Monet still has plenty to tell us today. He painted nature in all its beauty. The same nature that our behavior is destroying. His art is a call for us to respect the environment," says Marianne Mathieu from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

Monet showed us what it means to not let anything stand in your way, and to overcome the challenges that life throws your way. He is a shining example that it pays off to continue believing in your passions, even when the odds seem stacked against you. To create a path fueled by passion and enthusiasm and to make the world a little more beautiful by putting your message out there, based on how you see the world.

Monet also taught us that it's always worth persevering. Seeing the world through our own eyes. Being inspired – whether it's by a water lily or a porcelain cat. Not giving up. Life challenges us. But it also inspires confidence in us. That is, provided you're brave enough to follow your heart.

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