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Doctor's Visit

Jan Steen

Doctor's Visit

Jan Steen
  • Date: 1663 - 1665
  • Style: Baroque
  • Genre: genre painting
  • Media: oil, panel
  • Tag: group-portraits, hospitals-and-pharmacies
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The doctor’s visit was the most popular medical representation in 17th century Dutch genre painting. The popular subject was portrayed by Jan Steen in eighteen paintings, in which typically a young woman suffers from an ailment related to love. Lovesickness, called in Dutch minne-pijn or minne koortz meaning ‘pain or fever of the heart’, was a condition discussed in medical essays in the 17th century. The strange condition had only one socially acceptable cure, marriage. In paintings such as Doctor’s Visit (ca. 1661-1662), The Lovesick Maiden (ca. 1660), Doctor’s Visit (ca. 1660), and Doctor’s Visit (ca. 1663), Steen showed variation and developed each face in a different way.

One of the most intriguing examples of Steen’s treatment of the subject is Doctor’s Visit (1663-1665). In the painting, Steen injects humor and wit to relay poignant commentary on the subject. The scene shows the doctor examining the young maiden by checking her pulse, while the housemaid opens the door letting in a young man, probably the maiden’s lover. The onlookers in the room all seem to be aware of the patient’s condition, except for the doctor. The artist emphasizes the doctor’s state of oblivion, he seems baffled by the maiden’s quickened pulse, completely unaware that she spotted her lover in the doorway behind him. Steen even dressed the doctor’s in an old fashioned garment, that is somewhat similar to a theater costume. On the floor next to the maiden’s foot is a love letter, as well as a vessel with a smoldering ribbon, which was a technique used by quacks for determining a pregnancy. According to one version of the test, the ribbon would be dipped in the patient’s urine and burned, and if the patient would become nauseous by the smell it meant that she was pregnant. The woman in the center of the composition is playing the harpsichord. Music, was considered a cure for melancholy, as well as a symbol of love, and here it can represent the harmony between the two lovers. All these details are carefully placed to hint at the situation and ignite the imagination of the viewer.

Most significantly, Steen inserts himself into the scene, in the right corner of the composition. He holds up a herring and two onions - these are suggestive hinting at a phallic symbol. This symbolism adds a dimension of folly and absurdity to the painting. Steen wears a slashed beret associated with the fool of the Dutch rhetoricians, but at the same time he transforms this known model. Even though he is part of the composition, Steen directly confronts the viewer, emphasizing his role as a commentator. By placing himself on the outside, he reminds the viewer that the scene is staged. By infusing a theatrical influence of Dutch rhetoricians into the painting, Steen explores the metaphor of the world as a stage, a concept which was very popular in 17th century Dutch culture.

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