Swetha Vemuri

Hello? Can you read that clearly?? Can you see the distinct form of the letters, the different colors, the lines and shapes that form the word “hello”? Good for you!! It means that you have good eyesight! You know who else has good eyesight? Artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Edgar Degas. In fact, both artists heavily depended on their eye sights in order to create their famous works of art. Unfortunately for these artists, as we age, our eyesight starts to deteriorate to a point where we are looking at the world through a blurry glass: we are unable to observe as meticulously and clearly as before. Distinct lines and forms become mere abstract shapes as they slur and blur together; all the colors start to mix together as they start to get harder and harder to decipher and differentiate.

So what happens to Rembrandt and Degas? Well, as they get older and they start to physically degrade, they start to simultaneously mentally degrade as well. Eventually, they start to develop depression because without their eyesight, their old styles and views of the world are forever lost. Depression is a very strong and powerful emotion, so for many artists who vent some of their emotions into their art, it impacts and influences their artworks in different ways. For both Rembrandt and Degas, their artwork became less color oriented and more painterly and blurrier, as if they are literally emulating how their deteriorating eyesight shapes their view of the world. However, for Rembrandt, his depression really only changed his overall style because he was known for his very detailed, precise renderings of the world around him. For Degas, his depression not only changed his style but, more importantly, his typical subject matter. In fact Degas had a much more acute form of depression in comparison to Rembrandt, so the impact of his depression is much more drastic and visible in his artwork. Nevertheless, since depression is so overwhelming and powerful, it held a lasting impact for both Rembrandt and Degas as time went on and they began to suffer from heavier mental and physical degradation.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Rembrandt was born in the Netherlands and lived from 1606 to 1669. He is a very unique artist in that he has one of the largest collections of self-portraits in art history! With over one hundred self-portraits within a span of twenty seven years, it’s like a visual progression of how he has changed over the years. A crucial aspect of Rembrandt’s style is his intense study of people, objects, the world around him, and his compelling way of describing light, space, form, and atmosphere (2). This style is one that many artists have sought to emulate as he rose to fame and success.

Even though he is still regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time and has achieved great fame, he also suffered from depression. This is clearly shown through his collection of self-portraits.

Take this earlier self
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Self-Portrait With a Wide Brimmed Hat, 1632
portrait of him. It was painted when he was only twenty six years old. This is an excellent example of his artistic style as seen in his self-portraits. He very meticulously captured how the light falls on his youthful skin which has no deep wrinkles as of yet. He also captured the shining eyes, the springy texture of his hair and even the posture of a young man such as himself. This was also painted during his time as a successful well known painter, and so he even captured the exuberance that comes with success and relative happiness. You will also notice, particularly in this self-portrait, that his brushstrokes are blended in smoothly in order to demonstrate softness and light. In this one painting, he demonstrates a great deal of talent in capturing his direct observations of people and the world around him by studying himself. In order to capture such a likeness to himself, he had to really study himself, observe everything about his appearance in order to portray it accurately. It also means that he had the strong eyesight to be able to observe the world around him so carefully, so thoroughly.

But then, we slowly start to see that he did suffer from depression, and physical degradation. The remarkable thing about Rembrandt is that we can also really see his physical degradation because he has so many self-portraits of himself, and we know that he had been studying his appearance very thoroughly all throughout his life.

An excellent example of how depression, physical and mental degradation have impacted his art is this self-portrait from 1658, when he was fifty two and was only eleven years away from his death. One thing to note is the fact that he is painted as if he blends into the background, like he is slowly fading away, as opposed to his 1632 portrait where he proudly stands out in the painting. Although this is a very subtle detail, it indicates a shift towards more depressing, darker thoughts in his art.
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Self-Portrait, 1658

The physical degradation is very clear with this portrait. We can see the fierce brown eyes, the wrinkles and cuts on his face (3). His overall posture is more defeated as he rests on a chair versus standing straight, proud and exuberantly. He also chose to depict himself with a defeated, exhausted expression on his face. But why? Why chose to show himself this way? We already know that his self-portraits often demonstrated his meticulous study of himself, so here he simply reveals his observations to the viewer. Another explanation for this is his depression. If you look closely at the portrait, you will see that it is not nearly as crisp as his earlier portraits of himself, as he looks as if he is fading into the background. A good reason for this is because as Rembrandt has become much older, his eyesight has deteriorated, and he can no longer study as closely and thoroughly as he did before (4). Deteriorating eyesight is yet another example of physical degradation which is often linked to mental degradation as well. Especially for Rembrandt, who constantly used his ability to minutely observe the world around him, losing his eyesight means a deterioration of that aspect of his realistic style (4). It’s like he lost a part of himself, which gives a clear indication of why and how he suffered depression (4).

The context behind this art piece gives us another reason for his depression. In 1658 the third sale of his property took place, and all his possessions, his house, his furniture, his works, his art collection, were now sold (3). He also suffered from bankruptcy. After analyzing both these portraits, we realize even great and successful artists like Rembrandt suffer from depression. This depression stems from mental and physical degradation as we age, and we can see this phenomenon very clearly through the self-portraits of Rembrandt.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas was born in Paris, France into a wealthy banking family. He lived from 1834 to 1917. He was able to study and learn the classic forms of art. However, Degas eventually moved away from classical Academic paintings, and he is now labeled as one of the founders of Impressionism. However, unlike Rembrandt who was famous more for his style of meticulous observation and individuality, the most important thing about Degas’s style of painting is the subject matter. In his most successful days, he was never really interested in landscape or plein air works but rather modern life. He especially loved doing paintings about leisure activities, which makes sense as he grew up in a wealthy family and experienced more leisure time than others (5). With his signature subject matter, Degas eventually rose to fame and also became quite successful.

However, even though he did have a wealthy family and gained success and fame, he too suffered from depression in his life. This is shown as he transitions to his later life as a change in subject matter.

A great example of a typical Degas style painting is
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The Dance Class, 1874
this one which he painted when he was about forty years old. Painting a dance class reflects modern leisure activity and it allowed him to model the poses for himself so that he could show different angles and perspectives in one painting (5). We can see the demonstration of this idea very clearly in this painting, as some dancers are contorted into difficult poses while others stand off to the side. It is also important to note that he used lots of different colors and hues to show light and form, and he is able to precisely mimic the different textures of the people and the clothing. He also uses an usual perspective because we are looking at the scene from a slanted side angle. All of these elements are very common in Degas paintings. He, in fact, painted over 1500 paintings based on just dance alone! With his close attention to texture and form, we also know that he also relied heavily on his eyesight to produce his paintings.

However, we start to see drastic changes in his art as he gets older, particularly in the subject matter of his paintings. As Degas got older, he too started to feel both mental and physical degradation which eventually led to his depression.

This idea is clearly shown with this landscape painting which he made when he was fifty eight years old. While it was only eighteen years after the dance class painting featured above, a lot happened to Degas
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Landscape, 1892
. This painting is a clear indication of this. You almost can’t tell it is a Degas painting just by looking at it, it is so drastically different than his earlier artworks.

Why did this happen? Well, by the time he was fifty eight, Degas almost completely lost his sight and he could barely differentiate colors. His mono-type Landscape, an unusual work from this period, is an unexpected instance of Degas presenting an outdoor scene with no figures, which shows an imaginative and expressive use of color and freedom of line that may have arisen, at least in part, as a result of his struggle to adapt to his deteriorating vision. The painting shows how depressed Degas must have been from losing his eyesight because it shows a lack of color, precise texture, and movement as compared to his more famous works. For half his life Degas battled against depression and a dread of blindness. As his eyesight deteriorated, he adapted accordingly. Sensitivity to light kept him indoors. Throughout, his compositions remained highly structured and deceptively random (1). Unlike the crisp details of his typical paintings, this one has a fuzzy blurry quality to, as if we are looking through a dense fog. This painting also lacks that feel of life and movement that he often captured through the use of figures and models. The fact that he chose to do a landscape, which is something he did not especially like, indicates that he suffered from mental degradation as he sought to cope with his impending blindness. He no longer painted what he really wanted to paint, but rather, whatever he was actually capable of painting.

For Degas, while he did not necessarily become bankrupt like Rembrandt, he did lose his eyesight, almost completely.More than Rembrandt, Degas really felt acute depression. By the final months of his life, he just simply walked the streets of Paris aimlessly. But it is his mental and physical degradation, as well as his acute depression, that is shown in his later artworks such as this landscape. It’s almost like he was a different artist by the end of his life because he stopped painting dancers and using models which used to be part a huge part of his signature style.



(1) Caulfield, Debbie. "Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement." Disability Horizons. DH Media Group, 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 7 June 2015.

(2) "Rembrandt." The National Gallery. The National Gallery, n.d. Web. 7 June 2015.

(3) "Rembrandt Van Rijn." Self-Portrait, 1658 by Rembrandt. ERembrandt.org, 2011. Web. 07 June 2015

(4) Reuters, Thomson. "Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits: Psychological and Medical Aspects." Sage Journals 55 (2002): n. pag. Print.

(5) Schenkel, Ruth. "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Edgar Degas (1834–1917): Painting and Drawing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004. Web. 07 June 2015