Tuberculosis Disease also known as TB, Consumption, Phthisis & The White Plague
Not so long ago, the tuberculosis disease (TB) was one of the most feared and dangerous infectious diseases around the world.
Tuberculosis was also commonly named “consumption” or phthisis . People contracting the disease suffered with incredible fatigue, night sweats, and a general “wasting away”. Most died but some lucky ones did not.
In the 18th century, tuberculosis was also called “the white plague” as people with TB appeared deathly pale.
Attempted Cures Before Antibiotics
Before antibiotics, ‘doctors’ prescribed consumptive patients with herbal concoctions, dietary interventions, bleeding and purging and to those who could afford it, special sanatoriums. These sanatoriums were often located in the mountains, offering rest and fresh, clean air. Many of these “cures” not only didn’t work but sometimes exacerbated suffering and accelerated death. However, some lucky few did miraculously survive.
Until vaccines and cures were found, tuberculosis was one of the major causes of death all over the world. In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed one out of seven people. Only 70 years ago an antibiotic cure was discovered and tuberculosis was no longer a death warrant or a major danger to public health. How times have changed (or so we thought… #COVID-19)
Three Famous Artists & the Tuberculosis Disease
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) the French Romantic Painter
Eugène Delacroix is considered one of the greatest French Romantic painters. He was an incredibly prolific artist, creating over 9,000 artworks during his lifetime. His art includes, oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, lithographs and drawings. Delacroix’s use of color laid the foundation for the later impressionism and symbolism art movements.
In addition to creating art, Delacroix wrote a series of diaries. In these diaries he detailed his most inner thoughts about his works and private life. He also wrote of his fears about the progress of the tuberculosis disease which he contracted in he later years. At the age of 65, he succumbed to the illness.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Italian modernist painter
The young Italian boy, Amedeo Modigliani, contracted tuberculosis together with pleurisy at the early age of eleven. Although he recovered, it recurred again in a more severe form when he was sixteen. The doctors said that his case was fatal. The upside of this ‘death sentence’ was that Modigliani was certified as unfit for military service and did not have to fight in WW1.
Modigliani Moves to Paris to Pursue Art
In view of his ‘death warrant’, Modigliani decided to follow his dreams. He left his Italian hometown to the dismay of his family and went to Paris to become an artist. In Paris, he first studied sculpting. He carved stone for over four years but sadly only managed to sell two pieces.
Sculpting however proved too difficult for the frail artist. The physical demands of carving into hard stone and the spray of stone dust exacerbated his precarious illness. He finally decided to give up sculpting and started painting.
By 1918, his health deteriorated. Modigliani left Paris to the warmer weather of Nice in Southern France. He returned to Paris but his health continued to spiral downwards. His squalid living conditions, poor eating habits and continual abuse of alcohol and drugs further exacerbated his deterioration.
A Tragic Death
On January 14th 1920, emaciated Modigliani was spitting blood and burning with fever. The doctors diagnosed him with nephritis. Ten days later, and at the young age of 28, Modigliani died of tuberculosis and other related complications. He died in Paris totally penniless.
Tuberculosis & it’s Emotional Impact on Edvard Munch
The Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, is one of the most significant painters of modern art. He actively painted for more than sixty years. Munch used art to express his own feelings of love, loss , grief, despair, loneliness, anxiety, separation and death.
He himself did not contract tuberculosis (but he did contract the Spanish flu & survived). However, Edvard Munch did suffer immensely because of tuberculosis. When he was only five years old, his beloved mother died from tuberculosis. This was an extremely painful event. A few years later, when he was thirteen, his older sister (who looked after him after his mother died), also perished from TB .
Tuberculosis Captured in Edvard Munch’s Paintings
When Munch was 22 years old, he painted his first major artwork called The Sick Child. This poignant painting depicts the memory of his sister Sophie, dying of the tuberculosis disease. Munch painted this very same scene six times during the course of his life. Munch said that when he worked on each painting, he re-experienced the intense grief of losing his beloved sister.
Munch also painted Death in the Sick Room. This painting also captures the bedroom scene of his dying sister. However this time, rather than focus on his sister, Munch decides to capture the family members surrounding her. Munch wanted to portray both the fear of death and loneliness of grief. There is no interaction between the different family members in the bedroom. Each person is totally alone with in his/her own grief and fear.
Other notable artists who died of the tuberculosis disease include:
- Emily Brontë, the author of novels such as Wuthering Heights
- Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), Russian short-story writer, playwright and physician
- Franz Kafka (1883–1924) a German-language novelist.
- George Orwell (1903–1950) a British author of the novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four & Animal Farm
- Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) a Polish Composer
- Frédéric Bartholdi (1834–1904) the French sculptor and designer of the Statue of Liberty.
- Vivien Leigh (1913–1967) a British actress
For a full list of other famous people who contracted tuberculosis, press here
Good luck to everyone reading this post. Let’s hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will be over soon. Until then, try to brighten your life with creativity, art and family love.
See below for some wonderful art historical fiction novels about the impressionists & post impressionists. Let these beautiful books transport you ‘away’ from our present troubles.