The Dropsical Woman

Dou, Geritt

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on wood

Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown
  • Date of entry: Jul-23-2004
  • Last revised: Jul-27-2004


Framed on one side of the painting by a luxurious fabric curtain, a doctor, wearing the robe and hat of a degreed physician, stands in the centre of a well-appointed room, examining a specimen of urine in a glass flask. To his right the patient, an older woman, sits languidly with her face turned towards the light of an arched glass window.

A well-dressed middle-aged woman has evidently been feeding the patient, leaning towards her, concerned and attentive, holding a spoon. She is looking at a young girl who is seated on the floor holding a cloth with one hand and the patient’s hand with the other and looking anxiously at the face of the patient. The patient is possibly a grandmother being cared for by her daughter and grandchild.

The triangle of women is physically close, and the emotional intimacy of the two caregivers, their anxiety for the health and physical comfort of the patient, are finely rendered; the disengagement of the patient is conveyed in her gaze beyond the figures in the room towards the light. The physician, whose gaze is directed to the flask, is part of a second triangulation of caregivers surrounding the patient.


The patient is suffering from "dropsy," a contraction of hydropisy (from Greek), meaning water. Dropsy refers to the physical appearance of excessive fluid on the body causing swelling of extremities, or congestion of the lungs and heart; the causes of dropsy were numerous but most lethal were those caused by heart failure and kidney disease.

Painted in 1663 by Gerrit Dou, the first pupil of Rembrandt Harenzoon van Rijn, this finely detailed artwork depicts a key feature of medical practice in 17th century Europe--the careful visual inspection of urine as a diagnostic tool. Known as uroscopy, it was practiced by Sumerian and Babylonian physicians in 4000 BC, and advocated by Hippocrates.

In the 17th C, urine and pulse taking were the only diagnostic tools available to physicians to assess the health or disease of their patients. The urine was examined in a specially designed glass flask called a matula; each region of the flask corresponded to a part of the body. The urine was assessed for its "thickness," contents (sediment and foam), and colour. Numerous medieval manuscripts contain elaborate uroscopy charts, indicating about 20 gradations of colour, and other features of the urine and explanations of their significance.

Unethical physicians and charlatans, who claimed to predict a patient’s prognosis based on the contents in the flask, abused the practice of uroscopy. They were harshly condemned by many physicians, notably Thomas Brian, who derided them in his 1637 pamphlet, The Pisse-Prophet or Certain Pisse-Pot Lectures.


For further information on the medical history of urinalysis, see Henry Connor, "Medieval Uroscopy and its Representation on Misericords Part 1: Uroscopy." Clinical Medicine, 2001, 1:6, p. 507; and Ruth Harvey, "The Judgment of Urines," Canadian Medical Association Journal, 1998, 159; 1482 -1484.

Primary Source

Musée du Louvre, Paris