In 17th Century Dutch depictions of "scenes from everyday life," the so-called genre paintings, the single most popular medical representation is the "Doctor's Visit." Among the most comical and complex are those of Jan Steen, who painted at least 18 works with this theme. Typically the patient is a young female, often suffering from a variety of illnesses related to love, either "love sickness," erotic melancholy, or pregnancy. [See relevant paintings by Steen at the Web Gallery of Art: "The Doctor and His Patient," "Doctor's Visit," and "Love Sickness," at Select "S" from Artist Index, scroll down for Steen, select "Page 1".)

In this painting, the doctor looks with concern at his patient, a young girl, dressed in silk and leaning on a table, as he takes her pulse. Behind her stands a smirking young man who holds a holds a herring in one hand and two small onions in the other. At her feet is an opened letter, alongside a bowl with a piece of burnt ribbon, and a heating box filled with coals, known as a brazier. Behind the physician, a woman playing a harpsichord smiles at the young girl. Behind her, a maidservant beckons a tall, dark, and handsome young man in a red cloak to enter the room.


Lovesickness, known as "minne-pijn" (pain of the heart) or "mine-koortz" (fever of the heart) and apparently widespread in the Netherlands, was the subject of numerous medical treatises. Thought to result in a disequilibrium of the four Humours, unsatisfied or unrequited love caused melancholy, erratic pulse, pallor, changes in appetite, and mood swings. The cure was usually marriage, which satisfied the needs of both the minne (heart), and the body. Lovesickness shared many of the symptoms of pregnancy, which was often part of the differential diagnosis.

In this visual narrative, the diagnosis is clear to everyone but the hapless doctor. His clothing is outdated and looks more like theatrical costume from the comedia dell'arte. The physician seems out of date and out of touch with the realities of adolescent development. If the doctor is befuddled by love, the smirking young man (likely a Steen himself) clearly knows the diagnosis, and the objects in his hands are bawdy symbols of what is needed to cure the patient.

The herring and the two small onions, have an explicit sexual meaning. The woman at the harpsichord, positioned between the lover and the young girl, also smiles knowingly. Music, as a medical therapy, was thought to cure melancholy; in art it was a love symbol, representing the harmonious duet of two lovers.

Likely the young man's arrival has quickened the young lady's pulse, a symptom of lovesickness causing alarm to the physician who does not see the lover, and does not interpret the multiple clues--the love letter at her feet, the herring and onions, and the smoldering ribbon, a dubious medical test for assessing pregnancy. In one variant, the ribbon, dipped in the patient's urine, was burned; if she became nauseated at the smell, this was diagnostic of pregnancy.


Painted 1663-1665

Primary Source

Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection