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The Art of Infectious Diseases: How do 19th-century artists describe tuberculosis?

Like others, since the spread of infectious diseases in COVID-19, artists have been challenged by new conditions and norms. Many people have to adjust their creative content, working methods and places, and come up with innovative methods to improve work efficiency in temporary studios with limited painting materials and relative loneliness.

But one thing is certain: in the face of daily headlines-devastating disease, pain and death, creative expression and beneficial reflection on losses are still essential.

In recent years, I have been studying the influence of diseases on American artists in the late 19th century. At that time, medicine could not control the rapid spread of infectious diseases, so people turned to art to help meet the needs of understanding and dealing with diseases. In a forthcoming book on art and disease, I mentioned the painter Albert Searle, whose life and work changed greatly after his wife died of tuberculosis. For this grief-stricken painter, art is a kind of therapy.

Romantic disease
At the end of 18th century, tuberculosis was romanticized, and it was considered as a disease that could improve consciousness, creativity, insight and intellectual acuity. Poet john keats and pianist frederic chopin both died of tuberculosis in their early years, which consolidated the reputation of tuberculosis as an artist’s disease.

An early biographer in robert louis stevenson believed that tuberculosis enhanced the writer’s talent. In the relief depicting Stevenson’s stay in new york, Augustus Saint Gordon depicts the Bohemian writer. He has long hair and a cigarette in his hand. Although leaning against a pile of pillows, he still looks awake and efficient. As one critic said, this relief caught Stevenson’s “picturesque unhealthy”, as if illness had enhanced his charm.

Details of robert louis stevenson Relief Sculpted by Augustus Saint Gordon Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If people know little about the impact of this disease, they are even more ignorant about the mode of transmission of this disease.

For hundreds of years, the cause of tuberculosis has been attributed to miasma or smelly air. Finally, in the 1980s, medicine realized that invisible microorganisms were the source of infection, and germs could spread quietly from person to person. Unlike miasma, which can be identified by smell, germs move quietly in crowded cities without being noticed, and they are everywhere.

Pure air and healthy life
When the painter Albert Thayer’s wife died in 1891, the germ theory was widely accepted. As the son of a doctor and a public health expert, Searle should be familiar with this theory. He was worried that his three young children would get sick, so he began to look for a “healthy” environment-a place with a lot of fresh air and surrounded by nature, where the family could eat nutritious meals, move freely outdoors and get enough rest.

Thayer and his wife are not the only families looking for a healing environment. The 1970s marked the beginning of the sanatorium movement. People who have or think they may have tuberculosis are treated in open-air sanatoriums in mountainous areas, deserts or near the sea to fight the disease. At that time, in the United States, about one in seven people died of tuberculosis.

Thayer and his children in Dublin, New Hampshire live on this facility. Their home is at the foot of Monadnock Mountain, so that their families can fully immerse themselves in the fresh mountain air, which was considered as the “purest” air type at that time.

Usually, Thayer paints in the morning, then climbs Mount Monadnock, or walks along a long path with his family. Outdoor activities encourage people to take more deep breaths, which they think will release toxins that pollute the lungs.

Thayer’s family slept in outdoor custom-made loungers with covers on three sides, which allowed them to breathe fresh air all night. Searle also invented the “breath catcher”, a device worn around the nose and mouth (similar to today’s protective mask). According to the idea at that time, this device could prevent the “harmful exhalation” of the human body from freezing on the bedding at night. Searle will also wear a special kind of wool underwear, which is said to have the function of disease prevention and further prevent the invasion of germs.

A vibrant angel
While Searle tried to protect his family’s health, his art also changed. Early in his career, Searle mainly painted landscapes and portraits. But after his wife Kate fell ill, Thiel took his children-Mary, Gerald and gladys-as the theme of his works.

In his first work Angel, he described his eldest daughter Mary as a goddess. Her pale skin, set off by her white robe and wings, conveys a fragile feeling, which reminds people of the influence of tuberculosis. This painting blends the contradiction between a healthy daughter and a sick mother, folding the image of a healthy young man and the fear of physical disintegration.

In 1892-93, Searle described three children standing outside. The cloud on Mary’s shoulder is like a pair of wings, implying Searle’s earlier description of her in Angel, and further implying that she is body double, his dead wife.

Albert Thayer’s Son of 1892-3 Image source: friel Art Museum.
In view of Kate’s illness, the whole family’s attention is focused on nature and health, and the picture of children marching barefoot and dusty is also very meaningful. Their classical costumes pay tribute to the ancient Greeks, who were praised for their commitment to good health and outdoor life in Searle’s time.

Perhaps during their hiking in Monadnock Mountain, Searle’s children were immersed in a healing environment, reflecting the life embraced by their father. In that era when infectious diseases were rampant, they became a model of healthy outdoor life.

This painting may look old, but it resonates now. Tuberculosis and COVID-19 are both lung diseases with symptoms including shortness of breath and cough. Before streptomycin was developed in the 1940s, there was no effective way to treat tuberculosis, so in Thiel’s era, prevention and persistence-just like in COVID-19-were often closely related to good hygiene and healthy life. Like Mary, Gerald and gladys, we are still walking in nature today, trying to get rid of the psychological and physical constraints of the isolation period.

Today, filling our lungs with fresh air is still a reassuring