Claude Monet and Ultraviolet Light. Did the Master Impressionist painter have UV supervision ?

Claude Monet and Ultraviolet Light. Did the Master Impressionist painter have UV supervision ?
MonetsGarden

Did the ability to see UV lead Monet to paint with a more blueish palette ?

Everybody sees the world around them in different ways and although this is usually down to interpretation, some people can physically see more of the world around them. It’s claimed that Monet was one of them.

Monet and Ultraviolet vision

I’ve often heard that Monet had Ultraviolet vision and examples of how widespread this is thought can be found in this article in the Science section of the Guardian and in this article in the Daily Mail. It’s stated as fact all over the web but I’m still skeptical. It’s very easy to read something that’s repeated often and believe it especially when there are examples like the one above. Recently I’ve been taking more of a critical approach. Where do these claims come from and is there evidence to back them up ? There are many specialists who are pretty easy to locate by doing a few Google searches. Have they been consulted or quoted by the authors of these pieces ?

In this article I’m going to be doing some research on whether this is possible and whether this is probable. I’m entering this investigation with an open mind, a background in Art History and an interest in the facts.

I created a composite below of some of Monet’s paintings of Water lilies. This doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as the image at the top of this article as it doesn’t indicate any great change. He only lived for 3 years after his cataract operation and there are relatively few paintings that can be attributed to that period. It also appears that he was using a fairly blue palette before his operation. It is possible that he went back and corrected his paintings at a later date.

MonetsLilies

An image showing Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies before and one after cataract surgery.

Background

From early on in his career Monet rejected traditional methods of painting and didn’t want to paint what he knew was there but what he actually saw. In Paris at the Charles Gleyre academy he’d been taught to paint the sea as blue and the bark of a tree as brown but as he advised another painter:

When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field. . . . Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.

He wanted to create an impression of a scene at a particular time and capture what it was like at that particular moment. From 1900 onwards Monet had problems with his vision and complained to his friends that everything he saw was a fog. Although cataract operations had been performed for thousands of years they were still a risky business at the time. He agreed to surgery to totally remove the lense in his left eye in 1923 at the age of 82 and the operation was a success. There were no replacement implant lenses at the time and he had to wear thick glasses but his vision was transformed.

However, the operation had an unexpected side effect; as mentioned before it’s claimed that he began seeing the world with UV vision. His palette which before the operation had been red, brown and earthy took on a more bluish hue.

Water Lillies by Monet

Water Lillies by Monet – painted in 1926 3 years after his cataract operation

There are plenty of myths about artists so how do we know that this is true ? People often claim that Monet’s blurred style was a result of cataracts in an aging artist but this appears to be false in that he painted in this style from a young age.

What kind of light can we usually see ?

This diagram pretty clearly shows how how small the spectrum of light as part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation really is. The typical human eye will not respond to light below 390nm. The rod and cone cells in our retina have the potential to detect light down to 290nm, but our lenses block out everything below about 390nm.

Visible Spectrum of Light

Visible Spectrum of Light

From what I’ve read it’s possible that if you remove or replace the lense of your eye then these rays are no longer blocked and if an individual’s retina is sensitive to ultraviolet rays then they will be able to see Ultraviolet rays.

Does anyone in the 21st century have Ultra Violet vision ?

A retired Air Force Officer and Engineer called Alek Komarnitsky underwent cataract surgery in 2011. This is a pretty common operation which according to wikipedia is performed on over 2 and a half million people a year in the United States.

After undergoing this operation he appears to have become more sensitive to the low end of the visible light spectrum. On his website he puts across a very convincing case that he has Ultraviolet vision. By testing with a Monochromator at Hewlett-Packard, Komar was able to see purples at around 350nm and tiny bits of brightness down to 340nm.

The team at The Skeptics Guide to the Universe also seem convinced and if you listen in about 17 minutes into podcast 413 from June 15th 2013 they also mention Monet and his UV vision.

Not entirely relevant but just as exciting are experiments currently being performed to create retinal implants that could be used to cure some kinds of blindness. These implants would enable users to see a full spectrum of light rays that are not ordinarily visible.

Ultraviolet Photography

Digital cameras are generally manufactured with a filter over the sensor that stops them from recording Ultraviolet and Infra Red Light. It is however possible to have this filter removed so that you have a “Full Spectrum Camera”. By then using different filters on the front of your lense you can make sure that your camera only takes photographs which record a certain spectrum.

Ultraviolet beauty by Cara Phillips

Ultraviolet beauty by Cara Phillips

Many portraits taken using only UV light between the wavelengths of 335 and 365 nanometers to create images with a similar stunning effect.

Animals with ultraviolet vision

Although people can only see certain wavelengths many animals can see a broader spectrum. Insects including bees can see Ultraviolet and this can help them navigate and find flowers. There are also certain Butterflies where both genders look exactly the same to us but to each other (or someone who can see UV) the males have bright patterns which may help them to attract mates.

Conclusion

Monets-glasses

These are Monet’s thick tinted glasses it seems unlikely that UV rays could pass through these lenses.

Did Monet have Ultraviolet Supervision ? It’s certainly possible but I’m still not convinced. I hadn’t realised how much information there was on the subject but come back soon as I will continue to look into this.

Please leave a comment if you have any more information or think I’m wrong. I’d love to hear from you.

Further Reading

  • http://www.extremetech.com/computing/118557-the-eyes-have-it-seeing-ultraviolet-exploring-color
  • http://www.komar.org/faq/colorado-cataract-surgery-crystalens/ultra-violet-color-glow/
  • http://www.naturfotograf.com/UV_IR_rev01UV.html#top_page
  • http://singularityhub.com/2010/11/09/retina-implant-restores-vision-lets-cyborgs-see-ir-light/
  • http://ask.slashdot.org/story/11/10/02/1937232/ask-slashdot-how-to-exploit-post-cataract-ultraviolet-vision
  • http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20111126225836AAfGYmn
  • http://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/3069650
  • http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2080438/Why-DID-scorpions-evolve-glow-UV-light-The.html
  • http://www.lakeshorevision.com/cataracts-lasik-ilasik-blade-free-lasik-restor-len-implants-toric-implants-contact-lenses/premium-lens-implants-no-stich-cataract-surgery-multi-focal-lenses-toric-lenses/monet-and-cataracts-by-dr-martha-jay-milwaukee-area-ophthalmologist
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_vision

14 Comments to “Claude Monet and Ultraviolet Light. Did the Master Impressionist painter have UV supervision ?”

  1. PHILIP STALL // July 10, 2013 at 10:56 pm // Reply

    I recently had cataract surgery in February. I know this sounds odd but I was on vacation with my wife and she was looking at shirts that when you go out into the sun they change color. The sales rep took a shirt and put it under the UV light and it changed color. I noticed the white light coming from the box was distorted. I closed my right eye (of which I had the cataract put in) and and the glass was dark and I could not see anything else . I then closed my left eye and could see all twelve bulbs bright white and very clear no distortion.
    I asked my wife what she saw (she recently had cataract surgery) and she could only see the smoked glass, no white lights. I looked on Google and can’t find any other instances like mine. I am going to call the eye surgeon tomorrow. Have you heard of This?

    • Hi Philip, Thanks for sharing your experience and this is very interesting. After writing this article I contacted 3 people with specialised knowledge of this. Alek O. Komarnitsky, Klaus D Schmitt, William Stark who have been really helpful and provided me with fascinating information for a follow up article. Alek and William are both sensitive to UV light and it sounds like you are too. I think getting in touch with your surgeon is always probably the best option if you’re concerned but from what I have read this seems more common than I thought.

  2. Herwig Ronsmans // July 15, 2013 at 3:22 pm // Reply

    During a recent ‘solar day’ at the local observatory, I looked through a spectroscope and noticed very clearly the broad dark absorption lines of ionised calcium in the Sun’s spectrum. I also noticed several more lines of titanium and iron beyond that. All these lines are in the UV-A part of the electromagnetic spectrum. A couple of months ago I underwent cataract surgery in both eyes. My natural lenses were replaced by Akreos lenses. Before the operations I could not see these spectral lines in the spectroscope.

  3. Hi
    this is indeed very interesting and good luck on finding the truth.
    I really like your spectrum figure, I am writing an introduction to a book on UV
    and was looking for an informative figure and run into this site
    is this your figure, if it is your can i have permission to use it
    if not where did you get it
    thanks

  4. I have recently (4 months ago) sugary to remove the cataracts in both eyes and replace the clouded lenses with new plastic intraocular lenses. When I got the first eye done I was riding home on the bus and I took the eye patch off and the new lens showed the entire world was more blue. I figured out that the cataract was a yellowish cloud over and in the lens and it made the world look warmer and for a moment I thought more pleasant. I remembered that Monet, one of my favorite painters had cataracts. Since then i read more aboutMonet and that he had an eye operation to remove the catarct lens . He had to wear thick corrective glasses ans they had no way to put in the intraocular lens. I have astigmatism in both eyes so I will soon get a new prescription filled and have to wear glasses. I chose notto try the new lenses to correct that because they cost $5,000 and my insurance doesn’t cover them. I am and artist and a retired graphic designer and art director. I intend to start painting again soon. It will be interesting to see how my color vision works.

    • That’s fascinating and I’d love to see some of your art before and after to see how it affects your vision and perception. I can remember my Grandmother having her cataract surgery and commenting on what a huge difference it made,

  5. Sophia Johnson // October 5, 2013 at 9:44 pm // Reply

    aww I wish I could see UV light. I am obsessed with the colour.

    • Smoke some pot. That seems to have increased my sensitivity to UV light. In the middle of the day I came out of the forest, onto a road. The roadside was glowing whitish blue! After freaking out for a while, I realized that the roadside had been sprayed with some material. Most likely some kind of glow-in-the-dark road marking paint. It would be interesting to see if anyone else has the same experience.

      • Hi Martin. Thanks for commenting. I know that dopamine can dilate your pupils but I’m not sure how it affects your vision. Interesting thought !

  6. I suffered an injury to my left eye in 1966 at the age of 4. The injury damaged the cornea, lens and retina. At the time the only option the surgeon had was to completely remove the lens. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized that I could see things others couldn’t. Black lights are a perfect example – where someone with normal vision may see a dim, dark purple glow from a black light bulb I see a bright purple light that is painful to look at. Oddly enough I first noticed this while attending a baseball game at the Astrodome in Houston when I realized I could see black lights from vendors on the other side of the stadium!

  7. Vision studies have shown that many people can see ultraviolet down to 310 nm. Between 420 and 380 nm the lens becomes increasingly opaque by one or more orders of magnitude (depending on age). As a result, uv can only be seen under artificial conditions, e.g., a monochrometer or double-monochrometer in a dark room, or nowadays filtered lasers. Between 310 and 302 nm the opacity of the cornea increases by many order of magnitude. At 310 nm visual acuity is limited to 4 inches, at 6 inches things look blurry. Color perception is nearly extinct. Objects appear more than twice as large and far away as they are. Only people below the age of 30 can reliably see 310 nm. Between age 30 and 45 the lower limit of vision begins to gradually increase with age.

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s about 5000 people had the first artificial lens implants before they discovered that the lenses needed uv filtering. They are known as aphakics and have been extensively studied by eye researchers.

    In the 1950s, when aphakics still wore glasses with Coke-bottle lenses, they were studied by vision researchers. They can see far better than “normals” between 350nm and 400 nm, but fare no better than normals below 350 nm. The only exception is in the absolute limit of light detection. Normals can see a gray blur at 300 nm, with dark-adapted eyes and looking at very bright uv. A few rare individuals can detect light 280 nm. Aphakics can detect light at 250 nm, but only with scotopic (rod-mediated) vision.

    After his surgery (right eye only) Monet hated the new colors he saw. He described them as “quite terrifying.” Eventually he got a pair of glasses that filtered out much of the uv, and was very satisfied.

  8. I happened to be searching to determine why I cannot see fluorescence from UV illuminated objects through my IOL, but can through my natural lens.
    During my wandering, back burner search, I arrived here and at a page written by a man who documented his IOL experience and his ability to see into UV.
    To be honest, I never realized that people could not see a “black light”, as I’ve *always* saw the glow clearly. Indeed, in a darkened room, if someone turned on a large UV bulb, it was a near white-out in blue for me, painfully so as an intense brightness discomfort. I suspect it is one of the pigments in my eye fluorescing that provides that ability.
    I’ve also always been able to clearly see the near-IR laser in laser disc and CD/DVD players.
    It rather makes me wonder if we really should study, yet again, the full range that is normal in our population. It seems to be averaged down substantially, to judge from what I’ve read in various places and indeed, from my own personal experience.

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