One of Jan Steen’s favourite subjects was the doctor’s visit, or the sick girl. It is a humorous theme that was perfectly suited to Steen’s style.
A languishing young girl is being examined by the doctor. He is being fooled, as the girl is pretending to suffer from a ‘wandering womb’, a condition that was taken very seriously by doctors in those days. The only remedy was for the patient to sleep with her lover. And that is exactly what this girl intends to do.
There is no subject that Jan Steen portrayed as often as ‘the doctor’s visit’ or ‘the lovesick girl’. He depicted a languishing young woman receiving the doctor in her elegant bedchamber in more than twenty paintings.1 Steen produced his ‘doctor’s visits’, which are thematically related to the scenes with quacks of his early years, from the late 1650s onward (cf. inv. no. 168). He might have been inspired to portray this theme by his friend, the Leiden painter Frans van Mieris the Elder, who in 1657 painted what is perhaps the first ‘doctor’s visit’ set in the higher social circles (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).2 The subject, which was popularised by Steen, was also taken up by many other artists, such as Gabriel Metsu, Jacob Ochtervelt, Godefridus Schalcken and Samuel van Hoogstraten. The theme seems to have originated in Leiden, where Gerrit Dou painted his related piskijkers (doctors examining urine) – undoubtedly a source of inspiration for Steen and Van Mieris – at the beginning of the 1650s.3 Not one of Steen’s ‘doctor’s visits’ is dated, however, which makes it impossible to determine with any certainty the commencement and chronology of this sequence (which presumably runs until the late 1660s). Although the painting discussed here is generally dated to the early 1660s – shortly after Steen moved to Haarlem – its refined manner of painting and brilliant rendering of materials suggest that it originated earlier,4 possibly at the end of the 1650s, when the painter was living in Warmond near Leiden and moving in the circles of the Leiden ‘fine painters’ (see also inv. no. 818).5
In Steen’s ‘doctor’s visits’, the patient lies in her canopy bed or sits, as she does here, in a chair, barely able to hold up her limp wrist for the physician to feel her pulse. All of these depictions revolve around the patient’s lovesickness.6 Frustrated love has made her ill, and according to the then prevailing scientific opinion, this could lead to a whole range of gynaecological and psychological complaints. In serious cases, the blood could curdle and the womb could become ‘overheated’ and even be set adrift in the body. Such furor uterinus – uterine frenzy – was considered a potentially lifethreatening condition. The only remedy for a woman suffering from it was to marry quickly and share her bed with her beloved. Four of Steen’s ‘doctor’s visits’ include a telling inscription: ‘Hier baet geen medecyn, want het is minnepijn’ (Remedies are tried in vain, when seeking treatment for love’s pain).7
In the seventeenth century, the only cure for lovesickness was commonly thought to be a healthy dose of the person who was causing it. Not only was this therapy recommended in many contemporary medical publications, it was also a topic in plays and literature. The motto of an emblem by Otto van Veen of 1608 reads ‘Amans Amanti Medicus’: the beloved is the doctor of the beloved.8 The image shows a bedridden cupid with an arrow in his heart, being nursed by another cupid who takes his pulse and examines a flask of his urine. Although furor uterinus and related love disorders were taken seriously by medical science, Steen was bent on showing their humorous side, which was made much of in plays, comical stories and joke books.9 With the help of her maidservant, an infatuated girl could feign the condition in the hope of forcing her reluctant father to consent to her marriage. The dimwitted doctor naturally had no idea that they were pulling the wool over his eyes. It could also happen that the girl in question was already one step ahead of events and now had to face the consequences. An inscription in one of Steen’s ‘doctor’s visits’ makes this clear: ‘Unless my fantasy runs wild, this poor girl is now with child.’10
In these representations, the ‘doctor’ is invariably a comical figure dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothing.11 Here the old man wears a tall hat and a jerkin with decorative slashes, the same outfit worn by Steen’s toothpuller, who dispenses dubious treatment to a peasant boy at a market (inv. no. 165). In The Sick Girl, the character of the quack doctor has moved up in the world. With gloves in hand and cloak thrown over his shoulder, he seems to have hastened into the elegant room and taken his patient’s pulse immediately.12 Classical literature describes the pulse as an important gauge of the heart’s condition; the pulse quickens, for instance, at the mere sight of the beloved. Steen used this motif in more than half of his ‘doctor’s visits’.13 To arrive at a diagnosis, the doctor must also examine the patient’s urine, although here the ‘urinal’ – the glass vessel or phial used for the inspection of urine – is still in the wicker basket on the floor. Uroscopy – despite its long tradition as a serious method of medical examination – was increasingly disparaged in the seventeenth century. By this time the ‘urinal’ had appeared in various contemporary farces as the attribute of the quack doctor, just as his pompous mode of dressing in outmoded garments, such as the long sleeveless coat called a ‘tabard’, was another identifying sign.14 Other recurring motifs in Steen’s ‘doctor’s visits’ are the foot-warmer and the pan of burning coals, including a smouldering ribbon.15 The foul smell of burning textiles was thought to revive a woman who had fainted, and could even be used to determine whether she was pregnant. A physician might also use such odours to coax a wandering womb back to its proper place. The ancient Egyptians’ remedy for this was to let a woman inhale the fumes of evil-smelling substances.
In contrast to the doctor, the patient in Steen’s painting is dressed in contemporary clothing. She wears an elegant jacket of blue velvet, trimmed with white fur. A very fashionable touch is the ‘mouche’ on her temple: a piece of black fabric, worn to emphasise the whiteness of her skin.16 In the past, this was evidently seen as a damage in the painting. It was overpainted at some point, and this retouch was not removed until the 2010 restoration. One of the woman’s slippers lies on the floor in front of her.17 The observant maid has already pulled aside the red curtains of the canopy bed, while another woman lights the fire in the hearth.
Steen varied his ‘doctor’s visits’ by combining in different ways the same or similar motifs. The statue of Cupid, standing on the left edge of the mantelpiece, demonstratively holds high his arrow of love, a frequent motif in Steen’s other depictions of this theme.18 A lap dog in the foreground, watching the proceedings with interest, probably represents the patient’s absent lover. The fabric of the blue cushion the dog lies on is slightly worn and there is a hole near the corner – Steen had an eye for such details. His Doctor’s Visit in the Wellington Museum in London shows almost exactly the same dog in a similar pose, but wearing a collar with a heart, which underscores its amorous role.19 This sickroom has a large picture on the wall depicting a scene from the story of Venus and Adonis, based on an illustration of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Antonio Tempesta of 1606.20 Also recognisable is Frans Hals’s Peeckelharingh, the fool who comments on human folly.21 In the London Doctor’s Visit, Steen turned Cupid into a boy of flesh and blood, who is about to point his arrows at us, the viewers, so that we are also drawn into this farce. In The Sick Girl at the Mauritshuis, a rearing horse can be discerned in the gold-framed painting above the mantelpiece, though the subject of the picture is impossible to determine.22
Infrared reflectography brought several interesting pentimenti in this ‘doctor’s visit’ to light. On the wooden floor in the right foreground, for example, Steen initially painted – instead of the dog – an open bed-warmer, a motif seen more often in his ‘doctor’s visits’ (see infrared reflectogram).23 Such a bed-warmer would have been equally suitable in this context: filled with glowing coals, it could warm the bed to which the lovesick girl and her beloved were supposed to retire as quickly as possible. The infrared image also revealed that no space was reserved for the statue of Cupid on the mantelpiece in the background. He appears to have been a later addition, undoubtedly intended to enhance the scene’s meaning.
An exceptional element is the diagonal perspective that Steen used in this painting. His rooms usually look like imaginary peepshows, with the rear wall running parallel to the picture plane. Here, however, we look diagonally through the room to the corner where the walls meet; an evening landscape hangs near the top of the left-hand wall. This system of perspective has not one, but two vanishing points, to the left and right on an imaginary horizon line inside or outside the picture. Steen applied this perspective carelessly and evidently found it difficult to create a convincing illusion of space. For example, the floor in the foreground slopes too much, and Steen probably tried to hide this by adding the lap dog. By placing the doctor exactly in front of the line where the two walls meet, he succeeded in masking his problems with perspective.24
Steen signed this ambitious painting by ‘carving’ his name into a floor plank in the right foreground. He chose a complicated method of creating perspective and delivered a virtuoso performance in both the rendering of materials and the use of a palette rich in contrasts. Finally, characteristic of Steen is his close observation of the individual still-life elements, such as the wicker basket, the dog’s cushion, the pan of coals and the solitary slipper.
Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
The Sick Girl
On view in
Material and technical details
57.7 x 46.2 cm
lower right: JSteen. JS in ligature
Govert van Slingelandt, The Hague, in or before 1752; his widow, Agatha Huydecoper, The Hague, 1767-1768; Van Slingelandt sale, The Hague, 18 May 1768 (Lugt 1683), no. 34; the entire collection sold to Prince William V; Prince William V, The Hague, 1768-1795; confiscated by the French, transferred to the Muséum central des arts/Musée Napoléon (Musée du Louvre), Paris, 1795-1815; Royal Picture Gallery, housed in the Prince William V Gallery, The Hague, 1816; transferred to the Mauritshuis, 1822