A Touch of France / Blighted destinies: arts, artists, and the Romantic Disease in 19th-century France

Blighted destinies: arts, artists, and the Romantic Disease in 19th-century France

by I. Percebois, France


In the 19th century, tuberculosis (consumption) struck down countless thousands, acclaimed and nameless alike. Mysterious and incurable, it cut a swathe through the artistic world in France. Prosper Mérimée’s letters bear poignant witness to his fight against the disease; George Sand speaks of Chopin’s decline in her autobiographical writings; in Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, Chateaubriand recounts the consumptive death of his mistress Pauline de Beaumont. Tuberculosis became a major theme in novels of the day. In the works of Eugène Sue, Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Victor Hugo, it assumed a religious character and took the lives of frail heroines seeking to atone for their misdeeds. Realists like the Goncourt brothers and Emile Zola, on the other hand, denied tuberculosis any redeeming value and its depiction served anticlerical ends. Few painters portrayed the disease and it was the Norwegian Edvard Munch, in Paris in 1885, who produced the most explicit and moving representation in The Sick Child. But it was, above all, opera that placed tuberculosis center stage, thereby creating the paradox of the singing consumptive. By adapting the novels of French writers Alexandre Dumas, fils and Henry Murger, the composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini created La Traviata and La Bohème, two operas whose popularity shows no sign of abating. Thus, it was that tuberculosis came to serve as an artistic trope in 19th-century fiction, painting, and opera, and, latterly, in film adaptations.

Medicographia. 2015;37:104-115 (see French abstract on page 115)

It plagued 19th-century Europe, sowing death in its wake. Phthisis, the wasting disease, graveyard cough, consumption, call it what you will. Named or nameless it killed all the same. In a world transformed by the industrial revolution, it spread through overcrowded towns, taking the lives of unsung and lauded alike. It was mysterious, hereditary perhaps, incurable. Potions of dog fat and garlic, seaweed placed under the sufferer’s bed, sweltering near a hot stove, fresh air treatment in sanatoria, all proved futile. In France, the world of the arts was not spared and writers, painters, and musicians mythologized the sickness, putting it at the heart of their works, seeing it as a source of febrile creativity, as redemptive, as ennobling.

A case in point is Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), which less than five years later inspired Verdi to compose La Traviata, with Violetta the quintessential victim of the “Romantic Disease.” Not until the end of the 19th century did German microbiologist Robert Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus reveal the true face of the disease, thus sounding the death knell of the consumptive myth and paving the way to a genuine treatment of what came to be known as tuberculosis.

The arts in the time of tuberculosis

Before writers and artists in 19th-century France appropriated it as a fictional device, tuberculosis figured in their correspondence and autobiographical writings in all its blood-spitting wretchedness. Pulmonary tuberculosis, known then as phthisis, forced the dramatist Prosper Mérimée—the author of Carmen, the basis of Bizet’s namesake opera— to divide his twilight years between Paris, where he exercised his office as a senator under the Second Empire, and Cannes, where the mild climate soothed his hacking cough. In his posthumously published Letters to an Unknown Woman, who was in fact Jenny Dacquin, friend and confidante, Mérimée unflinchingly related the progress of his sickness. A letter dated 6 January 1870, less than a year before his death, evoked his repeated fits of breathlessness and nights of pain: “I have tried all remedies, but always find myself back where I started […]. I’m certain a slow and most painful death is approaching.”1

Clear-minded, Mérimée dwelled less on the disease, with which he had learned to live, than on the turbulence of history that was dragging France into war with Prussia. In the days following his death, Fanny Lagden, who watched over him till his last breath, wrote that “These horrible political events certainly shortened his life.”2 Curtailed perhaps, but Mérimée nonetheless died at 69, an age reached by few consumptives.

Cover of journal serializing The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas,
fils, showing Marguerite with her bouquet of white camellias. The novel inspired
the opera La Traviata, composed by Verdi.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France © Bridgeman Art Library.

The composer Frédéric Chopin struggled with consumption for years. His correspondence reveals the daily suffering, but also his humor, as in a letter dated 3 December 1838 to his friend Julian Fontana (also a Polish pianist and composer, and Chopin’s musical executor). Living at the time on the island of Majorca with his lover, the novelist George Sand (pseudonym used by Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin), Chopin wrote: “Three doctors—the most eminent on the island—examined me. One sniffed my spittle, the other tapped to see where the spit came from, the third palpated me while listening to how I spat. The first said I was going to die, the second that I was dying, the third that I was dead already.”3 George Sand recounted this Majorcan episode in her autobiography Histoire de ma Vie, where she describes tuberculosis as a wretched disease that provoked the hostility of the island’s inhabitants. Scarcely settled into their lodgings in Palma, the lovers were turfed out by the owner, who demanded from them a large sum of money to disinfect the house soiled by their presence, to whitewash its walls, and to replace its furniture, which was to be burned. Treated as plague victims, they found refuge at the Valldemossa Charterhouse, thanks to help from the French consul. But Chopin’s symptoms worsened: “Our stay at the Valldemossa Charterhouse,” wrote George Sand, “was a torture for him and a torment for me.”3 The composer seemed already to be dying, but he lived on for another decade, his strength sapped by the disease, which gave birth to works marked by melancholy. In 1849, he died at 39, in his apartment at the Place Vendôme in Paris. His younger sister Emilia too had been carried off by the same disease 22 years before at just 15, and they were reunited in death in her tomb at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870), writer and historian. Pastel, 1852,
by Simon Jacques Rochard.

© De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images.

The image of the artistic couple as victims of prophylactic measures is redolent of the attitude François-René de Chateaubriand encountered in Rome when looking for a last abode for his consumptive lover Pauline de Beaumont: a dread among those renting accommodation of the contagion of chest diseases.4 As a young woman, de Beaumont was well known in Parisian salons, but only entered the collective memory after her death in 1803, which Chateaubriand recounted in his Memoirs From Beyond the Grave. Extracts from her own diary testify to deep despair: “Why do I not have the courage todie?”5 Yet her bravery, heroism even, is celebrated by Chateaubriand when he describes her last moments. While he was in tears, Pauline greeted death with a resolute spirit shaken only by her death throes. Chateaubriand pressed a hand on her thin ribcage and felt her heart flutter: “Oh! Moment of horror and terror, I felt it stop!”5 Dead at 35, in a foreign land, Pauline de Beaumont, through Memoirs From Beyond the Grave, became a novelistic model for writers like the Goncourt brothers who chose the Eternal City as the setting for their novel Madame Gervaisais.

Pauline de Beaumont’s fate foreshadowed that of Marie Bashkirtseff, a Russian painter who died in 1884 aged but 25, in Paris, where she had come to study art at the Académie Julian. Like Pauline de Beaumont, Marie kept a diary, an emotive account of her losing battle against tuberculosis. In it she relates what fiction passes over, to wit medical horrors and treatments that mutilate the female body: “I burnt both sides of my bosom—I was unable to wear a low-cut dress for four months. And these burns have to be repeated from time to time to keep me alive. There’s no question of getting better. It seems like I take a dark view of things, but no, it’s simply true.”6 Marie’s clear-mindedness is striking and a reminder that wisdom is not the prerogative of age. This resignation went hand in hand with unsparing self-criticism because, in her mind, Marie Bashkirtseff despaired of achieving fame and saw tuberculosis as an alternative to mediocrity. In her diary entry for 21 August 1883, she wrote: “I want to live. But I have no genius and it would be better to die.”6 These words fail to do justice to this young polyglot artist and feminist. In a way, Marie’s diary summarizes all of 19th-century literature on tuberculosis and through its pages she joins the sisterhood of tragic heroines of this golden age of the novel.

Tuberculosis as a literary device

Strangely, the consumptive young woman became a popular heroine in 19th-century writing, as in Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842-1843), one of the founding texts of the French novel, whose imposing gallery of characters limns the varied faces of the disease. There is Lorraine, the weeping mother who caught the illness while nursing her child. And little Adèle Morel, the daughter of a poor lapidary, who at just four years old appears in the story only long enough to die under the eyes of compassionate readers. Sue does not even spare his heroine, the daughter of the Grand Duke of Gerolstein, who believes her to be dead. Abandoned at six by a moneygrubbing notary public, who passes her off for dead, maltreated by a one-eyed woman nicknamed La Chouette (The Owl), she endures loathsome treatment like a saint under torture. She becomes known as Fleur-de-Marie or Goualeuse (slang for “the Virgin” and “the singer,” respectively) and, inevitably, is stricken by tuberculosis. Far from spoiling her beauty, sickness heightens the delicacy of her face and gives it an ethereal character: “despite the wasted oval of her face, the expression of her features, her whole bearing, the grace of her attitude were still worthy of the brushes of great painters.”7 Fleur-de-Marie may be a fallen woman, her body may have been sullied, but her soul is untainted by vice. The more time she spends with her benefactor, the mysterious Rodolphe (who, unbeknown to both, is none other than her natural father, the Grand Duke), the more she becomes aware of her degradation and turns to religion. For Eugène Sue, tuberculosis stems from want, but is also a form of atonement where flesh and spirit merge. Paradoxically, the illness is a deliverance, which, at the very moment when she takes her vows as a nun, enables the heroine’s final apotheosis and frees her from an impure body so she can sit with God.

Tomb erected by François René de Chateaubriand, writer, politician, and diplomat, and founder of French Romanticism, for his mistress Pauline de Beaumont, née Montmorin (1768-1803), who died of tuberculosis in Rome. The epitaph reads: “After having seen her entire family, father, mother, two brothers, and sister perish, Pauline de Montmorin, consumed with a languishing disease [consumption] came to die in this foreign land. F. A. Chateaubriand
erected this monument in her memory.”

© Roger-Viollet.

Marie Duplessis (1824-1847), mistress to
Alexandre Dumas, fils, inspired the main character
of Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux
Camélias, published in 1948, adapted to
the stage in 1852, and set to music by
Verdi in 1853 in the opera La Traviata.

From the Journal des Romans, 1905, in which
the novel, still immensely popular more than 50
years after its first publication, was serialized.
© Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Bridgeman
Art Library.

This conception of tuberculosis had a lasting influence on French writers like Alexandre Dumas, fils, whose The Lady of the Camellias (1848) was a homage to Marie Duplessis, a Parisian courtesan of whom he was enamored and who died of consumption at the age of 23. The novel recounts the tragic passion of the young Armand Duval for the beautiful Marguerite Gautier. The heroine knows only too well, right from the start of the story, that she is doomed, because she says “I am ill, and with one of those diseases that never relent.”8

The giddy round of balls, suppers, and lovers was just a divertissement, as defined by Blaise Pascal: mere entertainment, a distraction, something that serves only to escape boredom, to avoid soul-searching, and above all to forget approaching death. True love alone challenges her licentious behavior, a bewitching interlude with Armand at Bougival, far removed from escapades in Paris. But Marguerite is never more mortal than when she wants to live and regain her health, so as to live fully this passion in which she had lost faith.

Well before death closes its icy fingers on her breast, it is renunciation that marks her end. By bending to the will of Armand’s father, by sacrificing her happiness to the honor of her beloved, she commits what is tantamount to suicide. She resumes her life as a courtesan, sells her body to repay debts, and takes refuge in her inner being, her soul, which she knows is pure because of the sacrifice of her love. Her fate is akin to that of Fleur-de-Marie’s, for in sickness both find a form of atonement. Love transforms Marguerite’s heart; tuberculosis enables the elevation of her soul. The priest who hears Marguerite’s deathbed confession is in no doubt: “She lived a sinner, but will die a Christian.”8

As Susan Sontag noted in Illness as Metaphor, “Tuberculosis provided a redemptive death for the fallen, like the young prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables.”9 Victor Hugo gives us a religious reading of the disease. From the outset, Fantine’s physiognomy seems to predispose her to this malady, for Hugo writes “she is a phantom possessed of the form of a nymph.”10 Tuberculosis first becomes manifest in Fantine’s dry cough, which appears while she is breastfeeding her daughter Cosette. No longer able to provide for Cosette, Fantine returns to her birthplace to seek work, confiding her daughter to the loathsome Thénardiers. Fantine works her fingers to the bone striving to meet their insistent demands for money for Cosette’s bed and board. Her symptoms worsen: coughing, cold sweats, and the fever which grips her after a bourgeois amuses himself by thrusting a handful of snow between her bare shoulders. Hugo’s portrait of Fantine in the early chapters of the book, praising the beauty of her shock of blond hair and pearl-like teeth, two of which—the upper incisors— she later sold in her struggle against destitution, contrasts starkly with his descriptions of her decline: “This creature of five and twenty had a wrinkled brow, flabby cheeks, pinched nostrils […] and her golden hair was growing out sprinkled with gray.”10 The realism of this portrait is, however, accompanied by a form of idealization of death since, by dying, Fantine recovers her lost purity. Like Fleur-de-Marie and Marguerite before her, the prostitute is transformed into a heavenly creature and tuberculosis, while it ravages her body, seems also to reveal the radiance of her soul: “Her whole person was trembling with an indescribable unfolding of wings, all ready to open wide and bear her away.”10 In Hugo’s romantic vision, Fantine is no longer the lifeless husk that is tossed into a common grave, but an angel, as intimated by the metaphor of wings.

The realistic novels of 19th-century France project a contrasting image of illness, which goes hand in hand with anticlericalism and a rejection of the expiatory conception of tuberculosis. Madame Gervaisais, the last novel written jointly by the Goncourt brothers, in 1869, differs in this way from Les Misérables, which preceded it by just 7 years. As in the works considered above, the conversion of the heroine is linked to the advance of her illness, but the Goncourts see in this the defeat of the scientific mind, which seeks refuge in religion as death bears down. The mystical fever that grips Madame Gervaisais is also a sickness that gradually isolates her from friends and family. In the last chapters of the book, her life is nothing more than mortification and leads to veritable dehumanization: “the increasing disembodiment of the physical being carried her a little closer to the holy madness and hallucinatory delights of religious love.”10 The spiritual impulse is thus stripped of its aura and constitutes nothing more than one of the symptoms of the illness.

Anticlericalism is apparent also in the last chapter of Emile Zola’s 1878 novel Une Page d’Amour (A Love Episode), an example of French naturalism, when the adulterous passion between Hélène Grandjean, a widow with an 11-year-old daughter, and Dr Deberle is finally consummated. The daughter, Jeanne, jealous of the place Dr Deberle increasingly occupies in her mother’s affections, willfully exposes herself to rain and cold and contracts phthisis (tuberculosis), dying just 3 weeks later. At the end of the novel, the hereditary ill that runs throughout the Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels, of which Une Page d’Amour is one, takes a new form. Symbolically, it is Dr Deberle who pronounces the name of Jeanne’s incurable malady, since in a way he is responsible for it: “It is an acute phthisis, he murmured at last, […] a case he had much studied: the miliary tubercles would multiply fast, the fits of breathlessness would worsen.”11

This medical precision is found in Zola’s description of Jeanne’s death pangs, which are accompanied by violent vomiting, a detail authors often omitted as they deemed it too degrading. Though Jeanne weakens as the days pass, she does not acquire the ethereal character of romantic heroines because her symptoms are root- ed in corporeality. Religion is unable to save Jeanne and in Zola’s eyes offers nothing more than the mirage of a first communion, an unattainable dream, the promise of which exacerbates her nervous disorders. Zola’s story describes death, not as an elevation of a soul finally freed of its earthly shell, but as the end of suffering, the final cure.

Fantine. Oil painting by Margaret
Bernardine Hall (1886). 157×116.2 cm,
located at the Walker Art Gallery,
National Museums, Liverpool, UK.
A consumptive Fantine tends her baby
Cosette, in Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

© Walker Art Gallery/National Museums
Liverpool/Bridgeman Images.

Tuberculosis as depicted in the visual arts

One might expect that this theme of tuberculosis, so vivid in the 19th-century novel, would also flourish in the visual arts. Yet few paintings portray the macabre spectacle of the disease. Marie Bashkirtseff seems to evoke her suffering in the 1883 work Self-Portrait, a Tear, where she turns away from the onlooker as if to conceal her pain. Likewise, it would be vain to search for a self-portrait by Eugène Delacroix that reveals his condition. In his canvasses, as in his letters, Delacroix was reticent about the disease to which he succumbed in 1863. Perhaps this was why he asked the photographer Gaspard- Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, not to publish his portrait, taken in 1858, in which Delacroix’s hollow face bears the stigmata of consumption. There is, however, a work by Delacroix that suggests the disease: the portrait of his friend Chopin and George Sand, sketched in 1838, just before the couple left for Majorca. In this unfinished painting, Delacroix sought to show the composer at the piano, while the novelist seems to be lost in thoughts of love. Much later, in 1874, the painting was cut in two, perhaps because the then owner felt that two canvasses would fetch a higher price than one, thus also materializing, as it were, the rupture between the lovers, who had separated in 1845. The portrait of George Sand now hangs in the Ordrupgaard Art Museum in Copenhagen, and the Chopin portrait is in the Louvre in Paris, the shadow of death seemingly flitting over his somber face.

Portrait of George Sand (left) and Chopin (right), by Eugène Delacroix.
George Sand (97×57 cm) is at the Ordrupgaardsamlingen, Copenhagen.

© AKG-images.

Frédéric Chopin (45×38 cm) is at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

© akg-images/Erich Lessing.

Study for George Sand and Chopin, by Delacroix (14.3×12.6 cm)
is at the Louvre Museum, Paris. The original unfinished painting
(1838) was cut up and the portraits were sold separately.

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Michèle Bellot.

It was a foreign painter staying in Paris who gave us the most doleful image of tuberculosis. In 1885, Edvard Munch won a scholarship to travel from his native Norway to study in Paris. It was there that he developed his ideas for The Sick Child, which was to become a recurrent theme in his painting. While Munch seems to come from the line of Norwegian artists like the naturalist painter Christian Krohg, The Sick Child sets him apart and is above all autobiographical. Tuberculosis killed his mother and then his older sister Sophie, who died in 1877 at only 15: “Disease, madness, and death were the black angels who leaned over the cradle at my birth,”12 he declared. Munch alludes to Sophie in The Sick Child, by showing a bedridden girl whose wan face is turned to a distressed mother who hangs her head in distress. Munch painted five other versions of this canvas, ceaselessly reliving his sister’s lingering death while trying to free himself of survivor guilt.

The months that Munch spent in Paris in 1885 were crucial to the gestation of The Sick Child, which the following year shocked at the Autumn Exhibition in Kristiania (the then name of the Norwegian capital), less because of its subject than its execution. Critics just saw “daubings,” blobs of paint, whereas in reality the artist’s brush retranscribed his deep sorrow.

The Sick Child, by Edvard Munch, 1907. Oil on canvas, 12.10×11.87 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

© Derek Bayes/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis.

Tuberculosis on the operatic stage

In the 19th century, opera turned tuberculosis into a popular theme, as in La Traviata, the third in Giuseppe Verdi’s trilogy, after Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. Verdi saw a theater production of Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias in 1852 in Paris, where he was staying with his lover, the operatic soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who became his second wife a few years later. If we are to believe his adoptive daughter, Maria Filomena, as he was leaving the theater Verdi heard in his mind the opening notes of what was to become La Traviata. In the depiction of Violetta “la traviata” (the “woman who strayed” or “the fallen woman”), one sees Giuseppina: she is this woman of easy virtue condemned by the composer’s entourage. Verdi defended Giuseppina in a letter dated 21 January 1852 to his former father-in-law Antonio Barezzi (whose daughter Margherita was Verdi’s first wife, who died suddenly, perhaps of encephalitis, in June 1840 at the age of 26): “I have nothing to hide. In my house there lives a lady, free, independent, like myself a lover of solitude, possessing a fortune that shelters her from all need. Neither I nor she owes to anyone at all an account of our actions.”13 With La Traviata, Verdi created a paradox: that of a consumptive woman singing operatic arias, an incongruity that did not escape the audience’s notice. The first performance at La Fenice, in Venice on 6 March 1853, was a sadly foreseeable fiasco, the word Verdi himself used. The composer was obliged to transpose the action to the 17th century to avoid shocking middle-class sensibilities, and had to come to terms with a singer called Fanny Salvini-Donatelli whose stoutness and age (she was 38) were at odds with the portrait of a young woman wasting away from consumption. It was not until Verdi reworked the opera the following year, and then much later when the role of Violetta was sung by sopranos like Maria Callas, that La Traviata won acclaim.

Original 1896 poster for La Bohème, opera by Giacomo Puccini,
which premiered in Turin on 1 February 1896, conducted by Arturo
Toscanini. Fondazione Puccini, Lucca, Italy.

© De Agostini Picture Library/A.Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images.

Poster for the motion picture Moulin Rouge! starring Nicole
Kidman and Ewan McGregor, released in 2001, the latest avatar
of La Dame aux Camélias, La Traviata, La Bohème.

© akg-images/Album/20TH CEN.

Callas also sang the role of the heroine of Puccini’s La Bohème, Mimi, who like Verdi’s Violetta died of tuberculosis in her prime. Premiered by Puccini on 1 February 1896, La Bohème is an adaptation of Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henry Murger (1851), which retraces the precarious existence of four young Parisian artists. Unlike his contemporaries, Murger describes a mirthful world of hardship peopled by characters who flit around and fall in love, while living from hand to mouth, trusting in Providence. This unrestrained merriment fades at the death of Mimi, a pretty and flirtatious working-class girl who drudges as a seamstress. Mimi is the fickle lover of the poet Rodolfo, whom she leaves for a viscount, tempted by the hats and dresses he can provide.

Puccini’s opera, which over the years has completely eclipsed Murger’s stories, is rooted in this amorous intrigue and ends with Mimi’s death, unlike the original text. Study of La Traviata and La Bohème shows them to be sister works and it is little wonder they inspired Baz Luhrmann to direct Moulin Rouge! his award-winning 2001 film. As his heroine, Luhrmann chose a courtesan called Satine, who is reminiscent of The Lady of the Camellias, and portrays her Bohemian world in Montmartre, peopled by famous figures like the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Her lover, Christian, is modeled on Puccini’s Rodolfo and is the epitome of Murger’s definition, in the preface to Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, of “amateur” Bohemians, who “find Bohemian life to be an existence full of appeal.”14 In the film, as in Murger’s stories or La Bohème, the young woman perishes at the very moment she is resolved to abandon her wicked ways for true love. Thus, we see how from Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème to Moulin Rouge! the theme of illness has fascinated through the ages and the arts, inspiring tragedies timeless in their appeal.

In the 1800s, tuberculosis was seen as the “malady of the century” and as such echoed the melancholy of the Romantics and inspired the Realists. Viewed as the disease of the poor, in reality tuberculosis affected all social classes and ushered many artists, writers, and composers into an early grave, and into legends of blighted destinies. Tragic stories that fire the imagination today, just as they did in the heady days of 19th-century Romanticism.

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10. Hugo V. Les Misérables. Vol I. Paris, France: Garnier-Flammarion; 1967.
11. Zola E. Une Page d’Amour. Paris, France: Garnier-Flammarion; 1973:320-321.
12. Heller R. Munch. Paris, France: Flammarion; 1991:10.
13. Gefen G. Verdi par Verdi. Paris, France: Éditions de l’Archipel; 2001:136.
14. Murger H. Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Paris, France: Gallimard; 1988:39.