The Quack

Dou, Geritt

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown
  • Date of entry: Apr-27-2005
  • Last revised: May-17-2007


Among the "scenes from everyday life" which constitute so-called "genre" painting in 17th Century Dutch art, the profession of medicine was often lampooned. In Gerritt Dou’s painting, the doctor is depicted as a deceiving charlatan, marketing his products with impressive but unsubstantiated claims about their effectiveness. In Dou’s hometown of Leiden, with the Blauwpoort (Blue Gatehouse) in the background left, the quack has set up shop outside the studio of a painter. [At the Web Gallery of Art on-line site, select "D" from the Artist Index, scroll down for Dou, select "Page 2".)

The artist gazes out of his window, holding the tools of his trade, a pallet and brushes. Directly beside him the quack stands under a Chinese umbrella, with stopper in his hand, and presents the patent medicine in a large glass vial to his audience. On his table is a document with a large and authoritative red seal, indicating his credentials and bolstering his credibility. On one side is a barber- surgeon’s basin, on the other is a monkey.

A crowd has gathered around, including a huntsman with a dead rabbit suspended on his rifle, a man with vegetables in a cart, and a woman with a pancake griddle and batter in a large bowl in the right foreground; she is cleaning and diapering a child. In the right foreground a woman gapes at the doctor and his medicine, unaware that her pocket is being picked. In front of her sprawls a child who holds a bread crust to bait and capture a small bird. In the left foreground is a tall, twisted and dead tree; across from it at the corner of the artist’s studio is a living tree lush with foliage.

While Nicolas Tulp (see Rembrandt’s "The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp") enjoyed a reputation as the "Vesalius of the North," this painting is more typical of the prevailing popular depictions of the doctor, not just in the Netherlands but elsewhere in Europe and equally subject to mockery and suspicion. At this time medical care was provided by local physicians, but also by traveling barber-surgeons whose skills and knowledge were dubious.


In this witty visual narrative about deception, the individuals in the crowd provide a visual commentary about the quack’s work. Like the hunter, he preys upon the vulnerable, just as the pickpocket preys upon the gaping woman, and the child baits the small bird. Like the pancake seller, the quack trades in truths that are "half-baked" (in Dutch, " raw or uncooked"); her act of cleaning the child seems a scatological comment on the quality of the quack’s productions. Like the painter, the quack’s business is based on deception. Just as the crowd in the painting is being persuaded to think that the coloured substance in the vial is a "real" and effective medicine, the audience viewing the painting is being persuaded that the two dimensional canvas is a real world.

During the 17th C, Dutch genre painting was closely connected to literature, particularly the popular form of literature, emblem books. These books consisted of aphorisms, each one illustrated with a natural object that is intended to be a symbol or emblem conveying the meaning of the saying, and a small explanation accompanying the visual image. The emblems and their meanings would have been immediately recognizable. Artists, like Dou, made use of these emblem books.

For example, the monkey is an emblem for deception and mischief. The two trees in the painting could have been borrowed from Roemer Visscher’s much-reprinted book, Sinnepoppen (1614) [ttp://]. In it, a twisted dead tree and a healthy tree remind the audience that it is easy to be tricked into believing in something that seems substantive and promising, but may ultimately be unfruitful, so that sound choices are always difficult to make.

Dou’s depiction neither condemns the quack for deceit nor the crowd for gullibility, but presents the relationships between doctor and his crowd, and the artist and his audience, and the ambiguities and complexities of truth telling and credibility.


Gerritt Dou was a pupil of Rembrandt from 1628-1631 in Leiden, Netherlands. This picture was painted in 1652. Dou's painting technique, which precisely rendered details of scenes in oil, without the appearance of brush strokes on a meticulously smooth surface, became known as "fine painting"; Dou founded the so-called "fineschilders" school of painters.

Primary Source

Christopher Brown. Images of a Golden Past: Dutch Genre Painting of the 17th C (New York: Abbeville Press) 1984.