Some pathologists and historians think that most famous painters were poisoned by the toxins in their paints, to some degree.
Many artists ground and mixed their own pigments of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other deadly materials and may have suffered the cumulative effects of absorption through breathing, touching, and accidentally ingesting them.
It has been suggested that it’s no accident that Vincent van Gogh’s insanity flared up during his most prolific two-year period.
The case of Francisco Goya is perhaps the most curious. Some say he was an artist whose paint poisoning actually helped his career.
Through age 46, Goya was a court painter, eminently competent but tame in his choice of subject matter.
In that year (1792), however, he became deathly ill with a coma, partial paralysis, impaired vision and hearing, dizziness, paranoia, and hallucinations, all symptoms of lead poisoning.
Goya was a particularly good candidate for this, since he ground and mixed his own pigments, covered his canvas with an undercoat of lead white, and painted in a furiously fast and messy way with brush, trowel, rag, mop, sponge, and hands, continuously splattering himself and everything nearby with his lead whites, cadmium yellows, and mercury reds.
He recovered, but over the next 36 years suffered at least five bouts of the same mysterious illness. Each time he’d have to stop painting, which allowed the lead in his body to drop below toxic levels.
The really interesting part is the effect this had on his art.
His work suddenly went from sweet and sentimental to eerie and grotesque, from peaceful country scenes to hellish nightmares, and from safe little vignettes to devastating satires of the excesses of nobles and the Church.
His frank depictions of mutilation, castration, strangulation, witchcraft, and strange acts revolutionized his work and made his reputation in art history.