Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Caution: Toxic Paints

Robert Genn, the great Canadian painter, died a few months ago. His daughter Sara is reviewing his posts from the past and will rerun the most helpful. The following information was first published in 2008.


"Artists of the past often suffered poor physical and mental health due to the materials they worked with: lead, powdered pigment, turpentine, carcinogens, etc. We know Vincent van Gogh put paint in his mouth. Clinical pathologist Dr. Paul Wolf of the University of California cites that illnesses, rather than being obstacles, can be the paths to genius. He mentioned the likes of Einstein, Warhol, Newton, Cezanne, Goya, Michelangelo, Turner and Berlioz. According to Wolf, these folks suffered varying degrees of depression, autism, myopia, anxiety, chronic pain, gout, stroke and dementia.

Portrait of Michaelangelo by Raphael

Historically speaking, we artists have been through a hundred years where "artist" has been aligned with "nut case." It hasn't always been so. I, for one, am working to have this current connection declared null and void. Actually, clear-sighted individuals with no known diseases may be the ones who are doing most of the good work.

Today, in our "safe" world of food and drug administrations, we may not be taking as many precautions as we might. Artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci certainly knew they were working with nasty chemicals because they prepared their own. They were very much aware of lead poisoning. Indeed, the fall of the Roman Empire had a lot to do with drinking water supplied through lead pipes. But it does stand to reason that a lot of painters died early because they didn't protect themselves from the ingestion of toxic lead-based paint--particularly through their skins."

Da Vinci's self portrait in red chalk


  1. How interesting! I would never have imagined the connection until you wrote about it here. How awful the effects of the chemicals, and it makes me wonder what other great masterpieces they might have created had they lived longer and been in better health. Thanks, Barbara

  2. We have more information of the affects of chemicals on our brains and bodies now. It is sad that careers/talents were stymied by chemicals!