Brushes and Bargains: A Faustian Dance with Toxic Tints

Tanmayi Prabhune

Who could have guessed that certain pigments would have a longer list of victims than even the most notorious criminals? Certainly not me, until I read Benjamin Labatut’s “When We Cease to Understand the World”. I came across chapters that talked about something really interesting: the health impact of the extensive use of toxic paints in art and design. From Michelangelo in 16th century Italy to Van Gogh in the late 19th century, the vivid hues of lead, arsenic, and mercury based paints captivated the hearts of these maestros. Intrigued by the book, I started looking into the stories behind some of the lethal pigments used by famous artists in history.

The Price of Radiance

The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh soon experienced the threat posed to those in his profession when his penchant for using vibrant reds eventually wrought havoc on his mind. The use of mercury red, a toxic pigment cherished for its intense color, left an indelible mark on both his art and his health. This pigment, infused with mercury—a dangerous neurotoxin—etched its way into his life, contributing to the mental and emotional struggles that would go on to shape his troubled artistic journey. 

The brilliant reds he achieved on his canvas contrasted starkly with the hidden toll of mercury poisoning, with symptoms ranging from physical tremors to psychological turmoil. Van Gogh’s compelling artistry and his personal battles became intertwined, revealing the intricate relationship between creativity and the hazards that sometimes accompany it.

(File:Red vineyards.jpg – Wikimedia Commons, n.d.)

Europe’s Toxic Obsession

What do a fleeting wallpaper fad and the death of a singularly influential French leader have in common? 

During the late 18th century, a new trend was spreading across Europe. A vibrant green color had captivated the minds of adults and children alike. From toys to wallpaper, Scheele’s green, named after its inventor, soared in popularity so much that it even became Napoleon’s favorite color, adorning his clothing and even the walls of his residences. The allure of this intense shade was undeniable, adding a touch of elegance and novelty to various aspects of life. However, beneath its enchanting appeal lay a perilous secret.

As it turns out, this wallpaper contained arsenic, a highly pernicious element that eventually led to his death and that of countless others. During his exile on the island of St.Helena, Napoleon stayed in an opulent room painted with his favorite color, green. Six years later, he died of stomach cancer. However, significant amounts of arsenic have been revealed in recent analyses of his hair samples. The very same hue that brought joy to countless lives also ravaged the bodies of those who came in contact with it, leaving them with painful blisters, paralyzed limbs, and an agonizing death.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

A Hazardous Legacy

White is a colour long associated with purity, light, and perfection. But how can a colour with such a positive image be one of the deadliest in the history of pigments?

Lead white has been used as far back as the 4th century B.C.E. by the ancient Greeks. Romans and Egyptians. It was highly valued by painters of the time for its dense opacity and practicality, up until the 19th century. The brilliant white tones and malleability of lead white made it indispensable for achieving lifelike flesh tones and the illusion of depth.

In his youth, Michelangelo, a painter, sculptor, and architect, was bestowed with a commission that would forever etch his name into the collective consciousness of humanity. Tasked with adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a monumental undertaking awaited the young prodigy—one that would push the boundaries of artistic expression and ultimately gift the world with an enduring testament to his genius. 

Unfortunately, Michelangelo would also turn out to be another unwitting victim of the allure of this dazzling pigment. The process of grinding and mixing lead white released toxic lead dust into the air, which Michelangelo and his apprentices breathed in, leading to insidious lead accumulation in their bodies. The artist’s persistent health issues, such as joint pain, fatigue, and even bouts of depression, are attributed to chronic lead poisoning. It is a testament to the tragic irony that the very substance that brought Michelangelo’s visions to life concealed a malevolent force that contributed to his physical and perhaps even emotional suffering.

(File:Sistina-interno.jpg – Wikimedia Commons, n.d.)

A Cautionary Tale

In the annals of art history, a vivid spectrum of tales awaits discovery—stories that intertwine creativity with unforeseen perils, yielding a deeper understanding of the artists’ enduring commitment to their craft. These artists, who painted their visions with brushes that held an element of risk, remind us that even in the pursuit of creativity, challenges and trade-offs often lie beneath the surface. Amidst the strokes of vibrant reds, greens, and whites, a symphony of artistic dedication emerges, accompanied by the quiet rhythm of artists’ health concerns.

Art is about making beautiful things, but sometimes it exacts its dues. These historical accounts prompt us to not only admire the masterpieces before us but also to recognize the stories of sacrifice that often came with their creation. So the next time you visit a museum, take a moment to appreciate the intricacies of each work. For all you know, the artist might have traded their life in exchange for a chance at creative immortality.


Labatut, B. (2020). When we cease to understand the world: Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. Pushkin Press.

Trusty, J. H. a. A., & Trusty, J. H. a. A. (2019). Green Death | The Art History of Arsenic. Artists Network.

Ruiz, A. (2019). Poisonous Pigments: Scheele’s Green. Los Angeles Art College | Fine Art | Concept Art | Degrees | Community Classes.

Hoakley. (2018, February 20). Pigment: Vermilion, the red of heaven. The Eclectic Light Company.

Ruiz, A. (2019a). Poisonous pigments: Lead white. Los Angeles Art College | Fine Art | Concept Art | Degrees | Community Classes.

Publika, L. (2020, June 1). When Color Kills: Toxic pigments through the ages. ARTpublika Magazine.

Kelleher, K. (2018, May 2). Scheele’s Green, the color of fake foliage and death. The Paris Review.

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