13. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Post-Impressionist Painter, Died From Syphilis
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a post-impressionistic painter who lived in the second half of the 19th century. His parents were first cousins who came from a long line of inbreeding, so he and his relatives had various genetic problems that caused difficulties throughout his life. He may have suffered from a condition now known as Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome, which caused him to have very short legs — he stood at only 4 ½ feet tall — and walk with a cane.
He found meaning and expression in art and began painting at an early age, inspired by the impressionist painters of the early nineteenth century. His paintings, though, were imbued with more realism, such as depictions of sex workers where they may have generally stood on the street.
Though Toulouse-Lautrec depicted sex workers in a way that was factual rather than erotic, he was known for his own lifestyle of debauchery. He contracted syphilis, possibly from one of the women that modeled for him, and was a known alcoholic. His syphilis may have been treated with mercury (this was before its toxicity was established when it was still used in medical treatments), leading to his death from the disease at the age of 36.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, George “Beau” Brummel was at the forefront of men’s fashion in England. Educated at Eton, he was presented to the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, with whom he developed a long friendship. Brummel went on to study at Oxford, where he was known for his taste in clothing. After college, he was able to live off of a large inheritance and enjoy the patronage of the Prince of Wales as he moved to the forefront of London’s elite in fashion. He was known as an arbiter of men’s dress and developed the modern pantsuit, which replaced the previous stockings and breeches. He was said to be so tedious about pieces fitting that he had every part of his suits made at a different tailor. Even his patron copied his attire.
Beau Brummel was possibly the first modern celebrity and had the scars to prove it. His extravagant lifestyle, coupled with compulsive gambling, led him to amass significant debts. He also had a falling out with his prestigious patron and fled to France to avoid his creditors. He was institutionalized and died in squalor, demented and living in delusions of his grandiose past. His demise may have been sped along by syphilis. While in an institution, he was known to be incontinent and drooled constantly.
15. Scottish Biographer James Boswell Had Gonorrhea
James Boswell (1740-1795) is famous among Scots for being the biographer of the famous British writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson. During his childhood, he was known to suffer bouts of depression, nervousness, and depression, some of which may have been hereditary. Born into prestige and surrounded by affluent circles, yet plagued by isolation and mental illness, he aspired to become a writer. His parents were strict — his mother brought him up as an austere Calvinist, and his father despised his penchant for the literary and theatrical arts — which possibly led to him frequently consorting with prostitutes throughout his youth and adult life.
From the very first time that he met with a prostitute, during his time in London, he picked up a venereal disease. He probably didn’t learn his lesson, as in his diary, he kept meticulous records of his consortations. He went on to have at least 19 attacks of gonorrhea, something that probably did little to help the mental torment and isolation that had plagued him since childhood. His wife would note the swollen size of his genitalia due to venereal disease and would apply a poultice to them every night.
What is the moral of the story? Kids will find a way to escape a harsh upbringing, even if doing so brings disaster upon them.
Franz Schubert, the classical composer, showed an early aptitude for music, including a prodigious talent for the piano and voice. He studied under Antonio Salieri (the same guy who was Mozart’s rival) and began composing music as a young adult. Living in Vienna, Austria during the 1800s, on at least one occasion he passed by Beethoven while walking down the street! Hearing one of his own pieces performed in public inspired Schubert to quit his day job as a teacher and pursue music full-time. He struggled financially, though, as his music was not as traditional as what patrons were accustomed to financing. He went on to contract syphilis — which was common in Vienna — as a young adult, which may have affected his career as a composer.
Schubert’s health deteriorated, likely due at least in part to syphilis, which he self-medicated with mercury (before mercury’s toxic effects became known, it was widely used in medicine). In fact, he was so secretive about his disease that he had his friends burn all of his paperwork associated with it. He died an early death at the age of 31. Ironically, his final performance brought in enough money for him to finally buy a piano. His music didn’t become well-known until after his death; should he have lived a few more years, he may have died a wealthy man.
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