The Temptation of the Idler (The Dream of the Doctor)

Dürer, Albrecht

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Engraving

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Jan-10-2006
  • Last revised: Jan-26-2006


A doctor sleeps in a sitting position, ensconced in an enclave next to what appears to be a hearth. His head rests against comfortable cushions and he is fully clothed. A demonic figure replete with teeth, claws, and wings occupies the upper right-hand corner of the frame and holds an accordion-style fan behind the doctor’s ear.

In the painting’s foreground, a nude woman faces her body forward towards the viewer but turns her head to look at the doctor. Her right arm extends her hand, which points lazily to the hearth. A garment that covers her genitalia is draped over her outstretched arm. At the base of the image, a winged cherub plays on homemade stilts. He does not appear to interact with the other figures in the print.


The Temptation of the Doctor, sometimes referred to as "The Dream of the Doctor," is a representative depiction of idleness. The languorous doctor who sleeps so comfortably against his soft pillow does so fully dressed, implying his sleep is one of pleasure--a nap--rather than a nighttime slumber. The Web Gallery of Art comments: "According to medieval codes of conduct such behaviour encouraged temptation, which is represented by the Devil, a demon who ’blows’ thoughts, presumably evil, into the sleeper’s ear. Probably the dream itself is represented by the nude Venus, voluptuous and inviting. She is accompanied, no doubt to identify her, by a playful Eros."

Whether or not she is indeed Venus, the nude woman nevertheless helps the viewer decode the reason behind the demon’s harassment of the doctor; she points to the hearth beside which the doctor indulges his laziness in order to make clear his transgression.

Dürer’s portrayals of the doctor(s) in Christ Among the Doctors, Steen’s in "The Lovesick Girl," and The Doctor’s Visit, or Dou’s The Dropsical Woman and The Quack are no more respectable or dignified ones. Contrast with more appreciative or heroic treatments: Goya Attended by Dr. Arrieta, Picasso’s Science and Charity, and even Fildes’s The Doctor (most are annotated in this database).


Executed circa 1498

Primary Source

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York