Thursday, November 30, 2006

Medicine and art in the Netherlands

It was one of those interesting confluence-of-events days yesterday when, shortly after viewing the draft poster for our upcoming History of Medicine Society Lecture on Surgery's Entry into its Modern Era: Depicted by the Art of the Times (see our web page for details on date and time) which features Rembrandt's famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp, I received a call from a patron interested in learning a little about the history of medicine in 17th century Holland for the upcoming Rembrandt exhibit at the Portland Art Museum.

Specifically, our patron was interested in Jan Steen, a contemporary of Rembrandt who is most well known for his genre paintings of Dutch life. Steen painted still lifes, historical and religious subjects, household scenes. According to a biography of the painter on the Web Gallery of Art, "a 'Jan Steen household' has become an epithet for an untidy house." (They should try cleaning with 17th-century technology and cleansing products!)

Steen also produced several medically-themed paintings, including his famous The Quack (which was famously stolen in 2002) and The Sick Lady (which can be seen here if you scroll down the page). In locating a few articles on 17th-century Dutch medicine for our patron, I came across one specifically on The Sick Lady, published in the journal Neurosurgery (2000 Nov., 47(5):1248). The sick lady, we learn, is not critically ill: she has that particular malady often referred to as "love sickness." To a 17th-century audience, this was obvious, given the patient's blushing cheeks and shy smile. How did a physician diagnose love sickness? By the tried-and-true methods of testing the pulse (obvious, even to a 21st-century audience!) and examining the urine (ok, it was still the 17th century).

All this has certainly piqued my interest in seeing these paintings up close and in person when the show comes to town. If you can't make it to the Portland Art Museum (or can't afford the entry fee), come hear more about medicine and art at our next lecture on January 8, 2007. If you can't make it to that either, don't worry--we'll provide streaming video of the presentation afterwards.

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