The authors, by means of documental research, study the possibility that the physical and psychic symptoms of Vincent van Gogh may have been due to chronic lead poisoning. The technique and materials used by Van Gogh are analysed as the cause of repeated exposure to lead as well as the possible means of penetration of the metal. Through historical-biographical analysis, the progressive symptoms of the illness are compared with those of lead poisoning. The authors conclude that the excessive and continuous use by Van Gogh of pigments which were highly toxic due to their high lead content, such as white lead (lead carbonate) and yellow chrome (lead chromium), could have penetrated his organism by digestive system (primarily) in minimal daily amounts, giving rise to a clinical condition of chronic lead poisoning. This type of poisoning coincides with the clinical symptoms Van Gogh describes in his autographed letters: initial debilitation, stomatitis with loss of teeth, recurring abdominal pains, anaemia (with a “plumbic” skin tone), neuropathy of the radial and saturnine encephalopathy including epileptic crises, progressive character changes and periods of delirium. The clinical symptoms shown by Van Gogh meet present criteria for diagnosis of Organic Mental Disorder due to cerebral lesion or somatic illness (F.06; CIE-10) (DSM-IV-R), and Organic Character Disorder (F.07; CIE-10) (DSM-IV-R).
[Goya, Fortuny, Van Gogh, Portinari: lead poisoning in painters across three centuries].
Servicio de Medicina Interna, Hospital Meixoeiro, Vigo. firstname.lastname@example.org
Patobiographic data of four brilliant painters who lived in three different centuries (Goya [XVIII], Fortuny and Van Gogh [XIX] and Portinari [XX]), were examined in search for a suspected lead poisoning. It is concluded that Goya’s disease and deafness was probably caused by lead poisoning. Fortuny’s death was probably precipitated by this illness in conjunction with malaria. This diagnosis is more problematic in Van Gogh and only a monograph favouring this was found. Portinari certainly suffered from lead poisoning and that finally caused his death. This source of the possible poisoning could be the high lead content of their paintings.
- [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]