Olga Khazan reviews a theory by Julio Montes-Sontiago, an internist from Spain, who claims that the maladies of a number of famed artists – including Michelangelo, Goya, Portinari, and, possibly, Van Gogh – came from their repeated exposure to lead-based paints:
Michelangelo, for example, was painted into Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, with a deformed, likely arthritic knee, according to the author. That, combined with letters from Michelangelo in which he complains of passing stones in his urine, suggests to Montes-Santiago that he might have suffered from paint- and wine-induced gout.
Many art historians think Van Gogh might have suffered from epilepsy and bipolar disorder, but Montes-Santiago argues that lead poisoning likely contributed to his delusions and hallucinations. The artist was known to have sucked on his brushes, possibly because lead has a sweet aftertaste…
Goya occasionally applied his paints directly to the canvas with his fingers, which Montes-Santiago argues is one reason he experienced problems like constipation, trembling hands, weakness of the limbs, blindness, vertigo, and tinnitus. In his famous 1820 self-portrait, Goya painted himself being embraced by his doctor.
(Image: Detail of Michaelangelo in Raphael’s School of Athens, via Wikimedia Commons)