Impressionist Painter Edgar Degas Takes a Stroll in Paris, 1915

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.

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