Engraving showing a man in a fumigation stove (1659), Jacques Laniet. Image from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956094/figure/F3/. A common treatment for syphilis at the time. Mercury would be placed inside the stove, and a fire would be started to vaporise the mercury around the patient.
Reader Question: “I remember hearing (learning?) years ago that some paintings depict people with physical indications of STDs. Perhaps syphilis? Is this true? Are other STDs depicted in art throughout history?”
Yes, this is true! This is a subject that really reflects how useful art history can be in studying the history of science and medicine, and how art has been used to educate people about medical conditions for hundreds of years. Beyond that, however, we can also use art to see how societal views of STDs have evolved – from simply fearful to judgmental and sexualised.
You’re right, by the way: syphilis is the STD that’s most commonly represented throughout art history, so it’s the one we’re going to focus on (with one brief depiction of gonorrhoea). Syphilis is one of the only STDs that have been around for a really long time (along with, again, gonorrhoea), so it is a disease that has been widely depicted in art history.
The hunters at rest (Охотники на привале) (1871), a genre painting by Russian artist Vasily Perov
Ok, so this might get confusing. First of all, there’s a traditional hierarchy of genres in Western art history, and genre painting is actually one of those genres, even though it’s called “genre painting” which kind of makes no sense. Wait, let me back up: genres, a.k.a. categories, in Western art history are not styles (like Impressionism, Pop Art, Realism) but are instead about the types of scenes that are being painted (portrait, landscape, still life). Let me back up again: a “genre painting” is not, as you might think, a painting that fits into any one of these genres; instead, a genre painting is a type of scene and is therefore “a genre” in itself.
Let’s see if we can make sense of this.
The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.
Reader question: “I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past – is that true and does it have any importance for the evolution of art?”
It is true! But it’s actually not cobalt blue that you’re thinking of, it’s ultramarine.
The history of colours in art is really weird and interesting. It’s true that the availability of various colours has often determined which ones are used and what importance they have. This is especially true the further back we go in history, when all colours were not readily available in the nearest art shop.
A surprising variety of methods were used to make different colours. To make bright red, for example, an early 8th century process was described by Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan: you had to heat mercury and sulfur in a flask, vaporize and recondense it, and then grind it to create a red colour.