Steen, Jan (Dutch, 1626-1679)

The Doctor's Visit

Reference Type:
c. 1660-1665
“The doctor’s visit” was a very common theme in 17th-century Dutch paintings of everyday life. He is most often portrayed visiting a young woman suffering from lovesickness, melancholy, or pregnancy. There was a lot written about “pain of the heart” in medical treatises of the time, when it was apparently a very common ailment in Holland. Everyone seems to understand the problem but the doctor, who is even dressed in an old-fashioned style. The young man holding the herring and onions, referring to certain male body parts, knows how to cure her. So does the woman playing the harpsichord—music was a treatment for melancholy at the time, and also symbolized a duet between two lovers. The ribbon refers to a pregnancy test of the time—it was dipped in the woman’s urine and burned; if the smell made her sick she was pregnant. The doctor checks her pulse and seems concerned. If it is racing, it is probably because of the young man coming in the door—most likely the author of the love letter on the floor. The doctor notices neither one. But the maid knows the young man can help and invites him in. This is a portrait of the doctor who doesn’t get out enough—the book-smart doctor who knows nothing about life and is a variant of the doctor as fool. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith. Image credit:
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA