What is ‘painter’s colic’ and did it kill Vincent van Gogh?

Art is a unique world to step into, but specific figures transcend its many galleries and become cultural staples. Vincent van Gogh was one painter so prolific that most will already know he died by suicide. What they might not know, however, is that he often used lead paint – but that’s a detail that only became relevant in relatively recent revisits of his life. As it turns out, the mental illness he struggled with – that was dismissed as lunacy in his lifetime – might have been triggered by acute lead poisoning.

Art historians have often discussed van Gogh’s tendency to lick his brushes, potentially because lead was sweet or he just wanted to wet a brush. In any case, the ensuing illness he suffered from was dubbed ‘painter’s colic’, which proved to be a divisive term. While some art critics are certain his routine ingestion of lead had a hand in his worsening health, others point to malnutrition and absinthe abuse, as well as documented mental health issues.

‘Painter’s colic’ is defined as: “Chronic intestinal pains and constipation caused by lead poisoning.” We need only look to other cultural icons like Kurt Cobain to know the damning psychological effect stomach pains can have. It’s also notable that in Paul Gauguin’s memoir, Avant et Après, he wrote that “van Gogh shot himself in the stomach”. Whether it was related to the ingestion of lead or a brief moment of desperation that caused it, nobody can say with certainty.

Years before van Gogh started painting, an Italian doctor had written extensively about painters who often used lead, noting that nearly all of them he knew were unhealthy in some sense. In 1713, he wrote De Morbis Artificum Diatriba, an extensive text looking at a range of fields and their specific hazards. “If we search for the cause of the cachectic and colourless appearance of the painters, as well as the melancholy feelings that they are so often victims of,” he wrote, “We should look no further than the harmful nature of the pigments.”

The side effects of prolonged exposure to lead ranged from agonising stomach pain to pale skin, exhaustion, and sometimes partial paralysis. Some have also pointed to Francisco Goya as a potential victim of the toxic paints. Goya, who famously painted a self-portrait clutching a doctor, experienced stomach issues, tremors, and tinnitus. He often used his hands to directly apply paint to a canvas.

Elsewhere in art history, more evidence of artists suffering from painter’s colic is evident. As well as van Gogh and Goya, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Candido Portinari are often thought to have suffered from it. A common thread these artist share is the darkness of their work. Not always, but often, there were flashes of misery and pain in all of their art. Through a contemporary lens, we can see how exposure to lead might have informed their bleak imagery.

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