Edgar Degas was nearly blind when this film footage was taken in 1915. The great French Impressionist painter had begun to lose his eyesight in his thirties, when he became extremely sensitive to bright light and experienced a loss of vision in his right eye. Degas developed blind spots in both eyes, and by the time he was in his forties he had lost a significant part of his central vision.
Painting was a struggle. The unbearableness of bright light forced Degas to work indoors, and eventually he had to ask his models for help identifying colors. By the time he was 57 he could no longer read. “How awful it is not being able to see clearly anymore,” Degas said late in his life. “I have to give up drawing and painting and for years now content myself with sculpture…. But if my eyesight continues to dim I won’t even be able to model any more. What will I do with my days then?”
In 1912 Degas had to give up art altogether, and he filled his days by taking long walks around Paris. When the young actor Sacha Guitry approached the retired artist about appearing in his film Ceux de Chez Nous, or “Those of Our Land” (we featured Guitry’s footage of a severely arthritic Pierre-Auguste Renoir on Wednesday and Claude Monet in his garden at Giverny yesterday), Degas flatly refused to participate. Undeterred, Guitry became a sort of pioneering paparazzi: He set up his camera near Degas’s home on the Boulevard de Clichy and waited in ambush for the 81-year-old man to pass by on one of his regular walks.
The resulting film is brief, but fascinating. The great painter strolls along with a female helper, a bowler hat on his head and a folded overcoat under one arm, using an umbrella as a walking stick. When he gets closer to the camera we can see that Degas is wearing the tinted glasses he customarily used to shield what was left of his eyesight from the harsh daylight. When the old man reaches the edge of the frame, the woman’s hand takes hold of his arm, and then he’s gone.