Modern technology helps shed light on illnesses in artists of the past
Clinical laboratories are becoming an important tool in understanding some of the effects of drugs, chemicals, and diseases on the creativity exhibited by a variety of artists
Illnesses, drugs and chemicals have influenced the artistic achievements of many of the world’s best-known composers, classical painters, authors and sculptors. The associations between these elements and art may be close and many, and the tools of modern technology, including the use of clinical laboratory analysis, are providing further insights into this interaction. A new article, "The Effects of Diseases, Drugs and Chemicals on the Creativity and Productivity of Famous Sculptors, Classic Painters, Classic Music Composers and Authors," sheds additional light on this fascinating subject.
The article is the latest commentary from Paul L. Wolf, M.D., Professor of Clinical Pathology at the University of California and VA San Diego Medical Centers, San Diego, CA, and Director of Autopsy and Hematology Laboratory, VA Medical Center. In addition to being Chair of the San Diego Section of the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC), Wolf is renowned for applying the technology of clinical labs to the diseases affecting famous artists of the past. His new article appears in the November 2005 edition of the Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, a publication of the College of American Pathologists (CAP).
Highlights of Dr. Wolf’s observations include the following:
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) developed various illnesses throughout his life, including gout. Gout is characterized by inflammation of the joints due to a buildup of uric acid. Michelangelo’s right knee, swollen and deformed from the disease, is depicted in Raphael’s fresco, School of Athens, which appears in the Vatican, having been commissioned by Pope Julius II during the time Michelangelo was painting some 400 characters on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Obsessed with his work, the artist would go for days consuming only bread and wine. At the time, wine containers were lead lined, thereby putting high levels of lead into the drink. This leads to what is known as "saturnine gout," which was rampant in Europe.
According to Wolf, lead injures the kidneys, thereby causing them to elevate the serum uric acid concentration, which becomes outwardly manifested as gout. Had clinical chemistry existed during Michelangelo’s lifetime, his uric acid levels could have been measured and monitored. Michelangelo also suffered from depression. He depicted his illness in the portrait of Jeremiah, one of the 400 characters he painted in the Sistine Chapel. Depression and bi-polar disorder and creativity tend to run in certain families. Today’s clinical laboratories could have helped the Tuscan-born painter understand that his illness was primarily biologically based.
Norway’s greatest Expressionist painter was Edvard Munch (1863-1909), best known for his painting The Scream (1883). There are four versions of the painting. The original is believed to have been Munch’s artistic expression of a fiery volcanic eruption which occurred that year in Indonesia. The explosion was so intense, Munch could see the blood red sky during an evening stroll in Oslo, which is half a world away.
Some also believe that Munch recreated the scene in 1893 while his sister, Laura, was being treated for schizophrenia. Was he trying to express his sister’s emotional torment? It is also possible that he had a psychological illness and was projecting it into the painting.
Modern pathology labs have focused on identifying genetic causes of disease. Such labs are looking for the genetic basis of schizophrenia in order to better treat and possibly cure this debilitating, brain-based disease.
Swedish painter Ivar Arosenius (1878-1909) is best known for his depiction of Saint George Slaying the Dragon. In that painting, the dragon bleeds convincingly and profusely. The portrayal of blood and bleeding is likely based on what the artist knew first hand: Arosenius was a hemophiliac. He died of the disease at age 30.
A modern coagulation laboratory could have detected his abnormality, which is caused by genetic mutations. It could have also monitored follow-up treatment with Factor VIII cloned preparations, were it available.
Vincent van Gogh
The color yellow fascinated Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), particularly in the last years of his life. By this time, his house was entirely yellow. All his paintings from this period were dominated by the color, and he wrote, How Beautiful Yellow Is.
Van Gogh’s preference for the color may have stemmed simply from an individual preference for it. According to Wolf, there is another possible explanation: the artist’s use of digitalis and ingestion of the liqueur absinthe.
Van Gogh suffered from epilepsy, for which he was treated with digitalis, as was often the case in the late 19th century. Digitalis is effective in heart failure; however, Parkinson suggested it as a treatment for epilepsy.
Since that time, researchers have discovered that significant retinal dysfunction occurs when high levels of the medication are consumed. Today, physicians are likely to diagnose a case of digoxin toxicity if a patient reports "yellow vision," also known as xanthopsia. Van Gogh’s fondness for yellow may also have been due to his excessive ingestion of absinthe. The drink contains the chemical thujone. Distilled from plants such as wormwood, thujone poisons the nervous system. The chemical effects of digitalis and thujone, which results in yellow vision, are now known. A modern clinical chemistry laboratory would have identified high levels of serum digitalis concentration and serum thujone concentration in van Gogh, thereby confirming excessive ingestion of these two products.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) was one of the world’s greatest sculptors. During his 30s, the syphilis he had contracted had developed into the tertiary stage. The effects of the disease led him to feelings of grandiosity and megalomania. A number of his business colleagues attempted to murder him during this period, using mercury. The poison was placed in a salad he was eating, causing him to become extremely ill. Rather than killing him, however, the mercury cured his syphilis.
Cellini soon began work on Perseus With the Head of Medusa, an artistic feat executed in bronze. At the base of the sculpture is a small statue. The god Mercury is in the center of it, surrounded by the venereal disease goddess with multiple breasts. The interpretation of is that Cellini is thanking Mercury for curing him.
A modern clinical chemistry laboratory could have confirmed the presence and level of mercury by examining his urine immediately following the poisoning. The modern analytic procedure for detecting and quantifying the poison in the system includes atomic absorption spectrometry.
Louis Hector Berlioz and Thomas De Quincey
Louis Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a famous classical music composer. Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was an English essayist. Both were addicted to opium, a narcotic drug containing morphine and codeine. Opium was commonly relied upon in the 19th century for stimulating creative ability and relieving stress; the artists also used it as a pain reliever.
Berlioz composed his most famous symphony, Symphonie Fantastique, in 1830. The symphony took as its subject the experience of a young musician in love, presumably the composer. One of the segments of the symphony is consistent with "An Opium Dream." DeQuincy’s most famous essay is Confessions of an English Opium Eater. In it, the author offers an eloquent essay on both the delights and agonies of opium abuse.
A modern clinical chemistry lab could have detected the presence of opium in these artists.
Today’s clinical laboratories are important in unraveling current medical mysteries. They are quickly becoming an important tool for increasing our knowledge about some of the forces behind the creativity exhibited by artists of the past.
Paul Wolf, MD | EurekAlert!