By Peter J. McDonnell, MD
Vision problems have no doubt been fairly common throughout history. However, the difficulties of prominent artists-celebrities that they are-often receive great attention. Claude Monet’s difficulty with cataracts, Mary Cassatt’s diabetes and cataracts that caused her to give up painting, and Jules Chéret’s (creator of those joyful posters of Parisian women) bilateral angle-closure glaucoma are the subjects of books.
Recently, I learned about three famous artists who went blind in the 1700s.
John Milton (the English poet famous for writing Paradise Lost) was born in 1674, 11 years before Johann Sebastian Bach (who composed the Brandenburg Concertos among other classical treasures) and Georg Friedrich Handel (perhaps most famous for the choral work Messiah).
Bach’s blindness and subsequent death, both at the age of 65, were reported to be “the unhappy consequences of a very unsuccessful eye operation” by British eye surgeon John Taylor (who performed two operations a month apart). 1
In 1751, at the age of 66, Handel developed a cataract and was operated upon by “the great charlatan Chevalier Taylor.”2
Again, the surgery was unsuccessful and he was completely blind for the last 7 years of his life.
Not all famous artists of this time became blind after failed surgery.
Milton is thought to have had either bilateral retinal detachments or glaucoma, and he spent the last 20 years of life without vision. He remained an acclaimed author, dictating his verse to scribes.3
Milton addressed the topic of his blindness through the biblical character of Samson in the poem Samson Agonistes. Samson, you may recall, was betrayed by the temptress Delilah, imprisoned, blinded by his captors, and chained to giant columns.
The suffering Samson describes his blindness as being similar to a solar eclipse: “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,/Irrevocably dark, total eclipse.”
Once his hair regrew, Samsom used his regained strength to pull down the columns to which he was chained, ending the lives of his enemies as well as his own and his suffering with blindness.
Handel, in his opera entitled “Samson,” has his lead character describe his blindness using a similar experience (a solar eclipse) and similar words: “Total eclipse! no sun, no moon!/All dark amidst the blaze of noon!”
Bach, who only lived a few months following his disastrous couching procedures, apparently did not have the opportunity to use his art to describe the experience of becoming blind.
Much has been written about these great artists and their visual challenges. What to me is less clear is the inner reaction of these gifted individuals to the challenge of losing their sight.
While a recent poll revealed the possibility of losing sight to be the number one health-related fear of Americans,4 my imagination causes me to think that artists might experience that loss in particularly dramatic fashion and might be able express the impact in a special way.
1. David, Mendel & Wolff. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York; W.W. Norton and Company. 1998, p. 188.
2. Hicks, Anthony 2013. “Handel, Georg Frideric”, Groves Music Online, Oxford University Press.
3. Sorsby A. 1930. The Nature of Milton’s Blindness. British Journal of Ophthalmology. 14:339-54.
4. Public Attitudes About Eye and Vision Health.
Scott AW, Bressler NM, Ffolkes S, Wittenborn JS, Jorkasky J.
JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134:1111-1118.