Articles

Posthumous Prognosis for Supposedly Syphilitic Gauguin, via His Teeth

by Allison Meier on February 27, 2014

Paul Gauguin, "Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ" (1889), oil on canvas (via Musée d'Orsay)

Paul Gauguin, “Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ” (1889), oil on canvas (via Musée d’Orsay)

It’s long been believed that painter Paul Gauguin was wrecked by syphilis when he died in the Marquesas Islands in 1903, but thanks to some old teeth thrown down a well, he may posthumously be given a cleaner bill of health.

As Martin Bailey reported for the Art Newspaper, researchers with Chicago’s Field Museum analyzed four dislodged teeth that were found in a well in an archeological dig near the hut where Gauguin’s lived from 1901 until his death. The teeth were discovered inside a glass container, along with some painting supplies, like a brush made from an island fruit and a coconut shell still stained with pigments. Since the teeth are pocked with cavities, and people in the Atuona village didn’t eat sugar in that era, they were immediately suspected as European; a later DNA test comparing the dental remains with the teeth of a grandson of Gauguin showed a 90–99% probability.

Gauguin's teeth

Gauguin’s teeth (via the Art Newspaper)

But the tests also revealed something else: a lack of mercury, the common treatment for syphilis at the time. This doesn’t mean definitively that Gauguin is in the clear from “the pox.” As Gauguin expert and art historian Caroline Boyle-Turner told the Art Newspaper, “The fact that no traces of mercury were detected suggests that either Gauguin did not have the disease, or that he was not treated for it.”

As a note, side effects of the mercury treatment, according to Harvard’s Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics, include ulcers in the mouth, throat, and on the skin, neurological damage, death, and, yes, tooth loss, although presumably said teeth would be contaminated with mercury unless they were extracted pre-treatment. (Story goes, it was a Parisian prostitute who gave Gauguin the disease, although that’s still debatable.)

So, why would anyone care? Such posthumous revelatory diagnoses are not uncommon for the famous, including European artists of the 19th century, who lived at a time when epidemics were widespread, but medicine to combat them was still being developed. Other artists to get an afterlife prognosis include Seurat, who was long believed to have died at the age of 31 from pneumonia, but may have actually been struck by diphtheria. Back in 1962 the descendants of Toulouse-Lautrec turned down some persistant doctors who wanted to exhume the dead artist’s body in order to analyze the ailments of the notably small-statured artist. Despite the lack of physical evidence, Toulouse-Lautrec has since been determined as having a genetic disorder known as pycnodysostosis, which has taken on the name of “Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome.” What killed him at the age of 36, however, is widely accepted to be alcohol — and, yes, syphilis.

To be fair to Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and other artists believed to have been afflicted by syphilis, such as Manet, in the 19th century in some parts of Europe, 10% of men had syphilis, according to the London Science Museum. The sexually transmitted infection still carries something of a stigma, and that taint is part of why it was such a problem in the 19th century. And while it might seem irrelevant to their art, it is helpful in highlighting an underdiscussed health crisis of a particular time.

As for the teeth: after the research was conducted, they were given back to the mayor of Atuona for display at a Gauguin museum located near his old hut, where he may or may not have spent his last days on the island gripped by one of the 19th century’s most devastating diseases.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • thelovelyjazmin

    Gauguin dying of syphilis is poetic for a man who was a rapist.

    • Allison C. Meier

      Although the whole point is he may not have died from it…

      • thelovelyjazmin

        Yes. I know. I, too, can read. I was pointing out how syphilis remains the most appropriate answer.

        • Shawn Chapman

          Has it occurred to you that a rape victim may end up suffering the same STD’s as the rapist? Really not so lovely Jazmin.

          • thelovelyjazmin

            Of course that has occured to me. This article isn’t about the victim. This is an article about trying to remove stigma from Gauguin’s legacy. Stigma that I believe is well earned.

          • Shawn Chapman

            So, it has occurred to you that a rape victim may end up suffering the same STD’s as the rapist, and yet you still root for the STD’s; curious. Doesn’t really seem so lovely Jazmin. I’ve never heard that Gauguin was a rapist. If you don’t mind sharing, what is your source for that claim? I thank you in advance for your reply. Peace

          • samktg

            It is well-known that Gauguin was a pedophile who took child brides while living in French Polynesia. To say “Gauguin was a rapist” should not be a controversial statement.

          • thelovelyjazmin
          • thelovelyjazmin

            I do not wish STDs on anyone. I just don’t want any part of this man’s reputation cleaned up. He was a terrible person. I hate to spend time trying to redeem him.

          • Shawn Chapman

            Thank you for sending “Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life.” A very interesting read. I think that within the context of the time and place described, Gauguin’s unsavory sexual exploits still don’t fall under the definition of rape, though I don’t know if I care to argue too hard for Gauguin being ‘just’ a pedophile. Still, Gauguin’s unsavory personal history stands or falls on his behavior, and not whether he had an STD.

          • thelovelyjazmin

            No. Rape doesn’t have a timeframe. Stop trying to make him seem better than he is. “unsavory sexual exploits”?!?! Stop it. This is exactly the reason he doesn’t need any redemption. People fall all over themselves to erase the fact that he was a rapist already.

          • Allison C. Meier

            I think you have made your point. However, this is not what this article is about, and saying whether or not someone had a disease is not a judgement of their character, good or bad.

          • thelovelyjazmin

            i do believe that this is what the article is about. whether you and i agree with the stigma or not, it exists. that is why this article was written. that is why people are taking the time to speculate and run tests and run articles about how he MAY not have had the disease because he wasnt being treated. “how could gauguin, a master of modernity, be afflicted with such a disease?! lets go out of our way to clear his name. lets rewrite history so he is a victim of his unsavory time.”

          • Allison C. Meier

            As the person who wrote this article, that is not why I wrote it. I think it is fascinating that you could find some old teeth down a well and have scientific research into 19th century illness. That is why I wrote the article, anything else is not my intent.

          • thelovelyjazmin

            There are countless cases of science and history working together. This became news because it was a way to make Gauguin seem more favorable. I don’t see why your intent in writing the article has any more standing than my reading of it. But I guess that is just a fundamental difference between us.

          • Shawn Chapman

            From the information you sent me, the arrangement of “marriage” was custom for the culture at that time. The way that you use the term of rape implies a forced sex act that I don’t think is accurate. Did Gauguin go to Tahiti to avail himself of this custom? Maybe/Probably. Were his actions with young girls disgusting, abusive, and reprehensible? Absolutely. But rape? I certainly call Woody Allen and Roman Polanski rapists, but I am not so sure about putting Gauguin in that same boat. But wherever he is now, I am sure he has been confronted with his life decisions, by Him who judges all things.

Previous post:

Next post: