Art can be a great way to represent rare medical conditions for the world to understand them. Here are 10 paintings that depict life with these syndromes & diseases.
By Rodrigo Ayala Cárdenas
Despite what it might appear to the untrained eye, this painting is anything but soothing in terms of its subject matter. This is not a girl enjoying an afternoon in the relaxing countryside while peacefully contemplating its faraway house. Her real name is Christina Olson, neighbor of painter Andrew Wyeth—the hand behind the painting.
You see, Christina suffered from Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, a genetic disease which damaged her nerves. Wyeth once saw her crawling across the field in front of his house as she struggled to reach her home, which inspired him to create the painting. "The challenge to me," Wyeth declared afterwards, "was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless."
Wyeth is certainly not alone in his impulse to capture life's daily struggles in art. Throughout history, many artists have depicted challenging physical conditions, whether diseases, defects, or syndromes, in their work—which has resulted in an invaluable insight to historians trying to determine details about the history of medicine. In order to honor their work and the themes it explores, we've compiled this list of 10 explicit works of art that depict life with rare syndromes and diseases.
Untitled (14th century)
Condition: Dracunculiasis/Guinea-worm disease
The sinister worm that's coming out of Saint Roch's leg (a pilgrim from the 14th century) has lay its eggs inside his body, with larvae set to come out when they're ready to be born. The Dracunculus is a species of worm measuring between 0.6 and 1 meter long, whose females travel into the human body when a person drinks contaminated water. A year later, the worm emerges from the person's inferior limbs through an ulcer, which may get infected. Nowadays, this type of worm is found mostly in Africa.
The Ugly Duchess or A Grotesque Old Woman (1513)
Author: Quentin Matsys
Condition: Paget's disease
This is Matsys' single most famous painting: a portrait of what appears to be an old woman suffering from a metabolic anomaly which causes abnormal bone growth and deformation. This condition is known as Paget's disease, named after the British surgeon James Paget, who first described it in 1876. Whether the Flamish painter did an honest effort to depict the condition or whether he basically made a satirical caricature, we cannot tell.
Sleeping Cupid (1608)
This angel-like child seems to be soundly asleep, but things are not as simple (or peaceful) as they might appear. Some argue the figure in the painting is actually suffering from a hormonal deficiency that might prevent growth in the first place—accounting for his tiny size. Italian endocrinologist Paolo Pozzilli, from the Campus Bio-Medico University in Rome, reached this conclusion after analyzing Caravaggio's work alongside a group of other scientists.
Santa Isabel de Hungría curando a los tiñosos (1672)
Author: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Condition: Tinea capitis
Tinea capitis was a rather common disease at the time when this painting was made. It causes bald spots, intense itching and even infections in the area where the person scratches. Bad hygiene, lack of treatment and poor quality of life all led to the prominence of this condition. This painting depicts Isabel of Hungary, daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, who dedicated her life to the care of the sick after becoming a widow. She commissioned the construction of a hospital in Marburg, where she tended to the patients herself. As a result, Pope Gregory IX canonized her in 1235.
Portrait of Charles II "The Bewitched" of Spain (1675)
Author: Juan Carreño de Miranda
Condition: Mandibular prognathism/Habsburg Jaw
This monarch is famed for his many physical ailments, most of which were the result of intense multigenerational inbreeding on account of Spain's ruling dynasty, the Habsburgs. The rate at which mandibular prognathism appeared in the family line, which consists in deformed facial features, led the condition to be known as "the Habsburg jaw," and one of its most prominent examples is depicted in this painting right here.
Author: Antoine Watteau
The main figure in the painting is a pierrot, an archetypical character of European artistic comedy. However, the pierrot here depicted seems to lack the vitality and lightness characteristic of these performers, instead looking melancholic and alienated. Gilles, the name given to this tall figure, seems to suffer from gigantism, a condition caused by excessive secretion of growth hormone. Despite its vivid colors and otherwise happy environment, the painting sure has a sad air about, doesn't it?
Portrait of Petrus Gonsalvus (1580)
Condition: Generalized Hypertrichosis
The man in this painting is Pedro González, also known as Petrus Gonsalvus, a Spanish noble from the 16th century whose entire body was covered with an unusual amount of hair—expect his hands and feet. His was one of the first fully documented cases of generalized hypertrichosis known to medicine. Born in Tenerife, Spain, in 1537, he was taken to the court of Henry II of France as a child, as the French king was curious to meet him. He became famous throughout Europe during his lifetime for his condition, and became an even greater object of curiosity after he married a beautiful lady of the Netherlands, known as Catherine. It is said that some versions of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale were inspired by his marriage and medical condition.
Author: Sir Charles Bell
The seemingly dying patient in this patient suffers from a terrible infection caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria, most commonly known as tetanus. This disease enters through an unsanitized open wound, causing a painful and often lethal affliction. One of its main symptoms is Opisthotonos, a violent spasm that causes the rigid arching of the back. Charles Bell, the painting's author, was one of the leading anatomists and surgeons of his time.
Author: Edvard Munch
Condition: Congenital syphilis
The Norwegian painter captures the dramatic case of a baby who inherited syphilis from his infected mother's womb. The heartbroken mother is shown crying as she holds her sick baby in her arms. This type of disease is characterized by deformities, developmental delays, seizures, rashes, fever, enlarged liver and spleen, anemia, and jaundice. The scene depicted in the painting is so terrible that the work was met with significant controversy when it was originally unveiled.
Author: William Utermohlen
Condition: Alzheimer's disease
German painter William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when he was 62 years old. At that moment, he began painting a series of self-portraits starting with Blue Skies and ending with the one shown here, which he labeled with his own surname. The painter drew himself with no eyes and a deformed face representing the excruciating reality (or loss thereof) of living with Alzheimer's. He shows us a mere shadow of what he once was as the disease progresses and takes over his whole persona.
There are many medical conditions that significantly challenge a person's way of life, and many of these have been thoroughly depicted in art across the centuries. Art can be a way to document these conditions, sure, but it can also turn them in their head and reveal the person underneath the disease for all of us to see. That's the power of art.
Translated by Oliver G. Alvar
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