Dou, Gerrit (Dutch, 1613-1675)

The Quack

Reference Type:
Gerrit Dou believed that painting should delight and instruct. Here, he warns against the mountebank—a quack doctor who sells useless potions to unsuspecting citizens. Some of the vignettes in the painting are related to emblem books, which contained aphorisms—each saying was accompanied by a natural object thought to convey its meaning, along with a short explanation. At the time, the public easily would have recognized them all. For example: the large red seal hanging from the document on the table—“what is sealed is true;” the mother wiping her baby’s bottom—“life is but stinks and shit;” and the child trying and failing to capture a bird refers to people’s vain pursuit of gold. Elsewhere, an elderly woman is so entranced by what the mountebank is saying that she does not notice her pocket being picked, a young woman holds up money while a man looks down her dress, and a monkey sits at the quack’s side, a symbol of deception and mischief. There is reason for Dou's protagonist to be outside an artist’s studio. The painter, who sits at the window with the tools of his trade, is the only character in the scene who addresses the viewer. Both mountebank and painter are masters of deception, but with dramatically different results. The former cheats the ignorant out of their hard-earned cash and might cause physical harm with useless potions; the latter deceives others into thinking the two-dimensional world is the real one, causing pleasure and admiration. The artist might even offer a bit of enlightenment, like the warning inherent in this work. Notes by Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.