Michael Barrett in Aeon:
More than any other disease, tuberculosis (TB), or consumption, shaped the social history of 19th-century Europe. Its impact on the artistic world was just as powerful, with artists offering their own commentaries on the disease through painting, poetry and opera. Consumption was almost a defining feature of Romanticism, the style of expression for which the era was known.
According to The White Plague (1952) by René and Jean Dubos, Caucasian patients took on a profoundly anaemic countenance as they lost blood and iron – thus the title of their great history of the disease. The consumptive model Elizabeth Siddal, best known as the drowned Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting, became an icon for her generation. Fashion-conscious, healthy women starved themselves and chemically whitened their skin to mimic this ‘consumptive’ look. Lord Byron, the most notorious of the Romantic poets, quipped that the affliction would have ladies saying: ‘See that poor Byron – how interesting he looks in dying.’ Indeed, the preponderance of Romantic writers, painters and composers with TB created a myth that consumption drove artistic genius. Many assumed that the spes phthisica, a kind of elation that intermingles with depression during the disease, elevated the mind.
The truth, of course, is that TB’s impact on the arts was merely a reflection of the savagery with which it ravaged the general population – artists and everyone else. In 1801, up to one-third of all Londoners died from TB.