Syphilis almost certainly came to Europe from America with Christopher Columbus’ crew. The first written records of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/5 in Naples, Italy. Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Syphilitic Man (above) is the first known pictorial representation of the disease. There was no effective treatment until the invention of antibiotics and still it kills more than 100,000 people a year.
Artists seem especially prone to the disease. Could it be their bohemian lifestyle, their existence outside the norms of society, maybe their propensity for travel, maybe their contact with models who were often ladies of easy virtue?
Let’s look at a few of the more famous:
Édouard Manet. Died in 1883 aged just 51, having suffered a long, horrible, lingering death from the disease, with years of partial paralysis from locomotor ataxia and a foot amputation.
Paul Gauguin. When Rolf Harris was imprisoned for fondling girls the value of his work bombed. Yet people are happy to pay tens of millions for Gaugin’s work, despite him not only being a paedophile of Jimmy Savile proportions, but also being syphilitic, infecting many of those dusky Polynesian girls you see in his pictures and many more. Gauguin died in abject poverty in 1903 aged just 54 in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, easing his long pain with morphine.
Vincent van Gogh. Committed suicide in 1890 aged 37. Before his death he suffered from poor digestion and a bad stomach, hallucinations, nightmares, stupor, absent mindedness, impotence, insomnia, and anxiety. Typical symptoms of syphilis. Vincent was treated for gonorrhea in 1882 and the grandson of Dr. Cavenaille, one of his physicians, said that he had been diagnosed with syphilis.
Francisco Goya. Died in 1828, in Bordeaux, France at the grand old age of 82. From 1792 an undiagnosed illness made Goya deaf, he then descended into paranoid dementia with noises in his head, temporary loss of vision and of balance. The nature of his artistic output changed drastically. Modern diagnostics have concluded that syphilis was the cause.
Albrecht Dürer. Died in 1528 aged 56, having been ill since 1521. During his final years, because of declining health, he produced very little, apart from a lot of preliminary work that was never carried through into pictures. Research now thinks that Durer was a promiscuous bisexual all his adult life, from which he most probably caught the syphilis that killed him.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Died in 1901 aged 36. A physical freak he spent a lot of his adult life with prostitutes, almost living in brothels at times. He allegedly caught syphilis from Rosa La Rouge, a prostitute who was the subject of several of his paintings.
Gerard de Lairesse. Died 1711 aged 70. A leading Dutch Golden Age painter, etcher, and art theorist. He had congenital syphilis, which made him blind in about 1690, after which he concentrated on art theory. Rembrandt, famously, pained his portrait in 1665, showing the ravaging effects of the syphilis.
Obviously the very nature of the disease means that people are going to be reticent about being infected, so we will never know the true extent of its effect.