Romanticizing death by Consumption.

Edvard Munch Anxiety

Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease that is transmitted from microscopic droplets released in the air. It prompts symptoms including pale skin, a high temperature, and the tell-tale sign of coughing up blood. From Hippocrates through to the nineteenth century, the disease was also known as consumption. These are terms derived from their Greek and Latin origins, with the former meaning ‘to waste away’. And ‘waste away’ its sufferers do: without medical intervention tuberculosis is routinely fatal.

Edvard Munch had lost his mother at age 5 and his sister Sophia when he was 15 years old. Both his mother and sister died of TB. The personal impact of these events made him come back to them many times in his work. Therefore, his paintings allow us to observe the development of TB's role in the society of that time very well. While the first painting depicts his dying sister in a romantic and barely suffering way, his last painting in contrast screams anxiety and death. It captures the horrifying development of the situation. No wonder his last painting was an inspiration for making his most famous painting the scream.

As we go through the timeline of 19th centuries art and literature, we learn more about TB and the impact it had on many artists from this period. We will follow along with the shift from a romanticized illness to a disease that was a dangerous killer.


Keats Death-warrant

At the start of the nineteenth century, Romanticism is taking over the world. Poets and artists make art and literature that are capturing how we tend to feel and look at the world. Involving love and nature but also death and disease. This was the movement that saw T.B as a beautiful way to die of. At the start of this movement is poet John Keats.

John Keats was an English poet whose work became famous after he died of TB. Because of his medical background, he was able to observe his disease very well. . He, therefore, captured the essence of TB in his poems.

On the night of February 3rd, 1820, Keat coughed blood for the first time. His friend Charles Brown was there with him that night. He recalls Keats saying: I know the color of that blood;—it is arterial blood;—I cannot be deceived by that color;—that drop of blood is my death warrant;—I must die.

In one of his most famous poems “ode to a nightingale”, he wrote of “ the weariness, the fever and the fret”. He also describes cases among his family and friends “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”. The whole poem is all about nature and death. About that nothing lasts.

When John Keats experienced TB his doctors advised a common prescription at this time – an ocean voyage. On September 28th, 1820 Keats and his close friend Joseph Severn sailed for Rome. On the ship, they had to spend 10 days in quarantine when there was news of a Cholera outbreak in England. He stayed in Rome and was treated with different therapies. The idea of these therapies was to shock the body to cure the disease.

This treatment included a starvation diet and multiple bleedings where they would cut wounds to shock the body. Furthermore, he was given opium is. These treatments only shortened his life. He was suffering to a point where he was no longer able to pursue his writing. In the last stage, TB can also affect the brain, where you can experience headaches and even impaired consciousness.

After Keats died, an autopsy was made to learn more about his death. His lungs were completely gone, which was a result of the coughing. The coughs not only had released blood but also lung tissue.


The Death of Chopin

Chopin is laying in his bed in Paris on the evening of October 16th, weak and with almost no sign of life. Only close friends and family are there with him. At the request of Chopin, his friend are providing music, Potocka sang and Franchomme played the cello. Then after midnight his physician leaned over him and asked whether he was suffering greatly. “No longer “ he replied. He died a few minutes before two a clock in the morning. His heart was removed and was put on hard water.

When he died, Chopin's eldest sister, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, complied with his request. She took the heart before his body could be buried and hid it in a jar of alcohol (probably cognac) in Poland.

Frederic Chopin is seen as one of the greatest composers in the history of music. When he died in 1849 at the age of 39 in Paris it came with great shock to the music world. Though, research showed that he suffered from TB for a long time before he died. His cause of death, however, was unclear for many years. In 2017, 150 years after Chopin died, his heart was taken out of the jar of alcohol and was examined, and it was concluded, that he died of TB.

In 1831, Chopin had his first episode of Hemoptysis ( coughing up blood ). 8 years later, he was absent from society, due to Pneumonia. In December 1839, Chopin complained to his doctor in Majorca: "Three doctors have visited me ... The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying, and the third said I was about to die. This shows the helplessness of medicine at this time. Till his death in 1849 he suffered greatly under T.B.

Chopin's example shows the long and painful progress a TB infection could have had. For us, the question remains, how Chopin's further life could have looked like without TB. However, the life expectancy in the 19th century was about 39 years.


Beata Beatrix Medicine

We see a woman being portrayed, a red dove is sitting in her hands as a message of love. Further, we see a poppy representing laudanum which refers to the way she died with an overdose of opium. Everything in this painting is revering to the relationship the model had with the artist. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted this portrait of his wife Elizabeth in 1870 a year after her death.

They got to know each other in 1850 when Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddal, an important model for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The next decade, she became his muse, his pupil, and his passion. But at the same time, she also got infected by TB. They got married in 1860. Her TB was so severe that she needed to be carried to the church. She was prescribed opium, which was a common prescription at the time. Unfortunately, though, it had tragic consequences. She became addicted and depressed and took her life by overdosing on opium in 1862.

Her death had a huge impact on Rossetti's life. He painted her in multiple paintings throughout his life and the painting Beata Beatrix is one of them, where he returns to her scene of death.

Besides the painting of Dantes Beatrice, Siddal was also a model for the famous painter John Everett Millais where she is painted with a poppy ironically. Millais was also a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood just like Rossetti. In both paintings of Rossetti and Millais, we can see that her skin is pale. This suits the beauty standards of that time, Where pale skin was seen as the ideal.

TB had not only a big influence on art and the way the act of dying was perceived but also heavily influenced beauty standards. Tuberculosis was seen to enhance those things that were are already established as beautiful in women such as thinness and pale skin, and which was often the result of the weight loss and lack of appetite caused by the disease.This beauty standard was also called Consumptive aesthetic. This aesthetic was seen in makeup and fashion, where the skin would be lightened and women would wear a corset to mimic the look.


Robber of youth

Fading away Is a photo montage made by Henry Peach Robinson. We see a young woman dying of TB surrounded by family members. This work made Robinson instantly famous across England. When Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria saw this photo, he issued a standing order for every major composite photography Robinson would make.

Robinson was an early photographer, and his images drew a lot of inspiration from the painting traditions and aesthetics of his time. Robinson was known as an artist of pictorialism tradition. The goal was to create photos with the looks of a painting. Robinson made this artwork with photo cutouts that were merged into one image.

Most of the artworks we see in this collection are depicting, young people, dying. That's because young people were more at risk to get TB. Between the years of 1851 and 1910 in England and Wales alone, a staggering four million died from tuberculosis, with more than one-third of those aged between 15 to 34, and a half between 20 to 24. This earned the disease another title the ‘robber of youth‘.


Robert Koch

Increasing research at the end of the 19th century affected the perception of TB. The innovative finding of the Tubercle Bacillus organism by Robert Koch in 1882 was a breakthrough for research on TB. This, and many other discoveries eventually made him one of the founding fathers of modern-day Bacteriology.

For the finding of tuberculosis, he received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. Nowadays his name is heard a lot in the German news while an institute is named after him, the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin and Wernigerode. These institutes advise the specialist public and government on preventing and tackling infectious disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we go through the timeline of 19th centuries art and literature, we learn more about TB and the impact it had on many artists from this period. We will follow along with the shift from a romanticized illness to a disease that was a dangerous killer.