The Sick Woman by Jan Steen
Faint from fever, the young woman rests her head on a pillow. Is she perhaps lovesick? Is she pregnant? To find out, a quack would put a strip of his patient’s clothing in a brazier to smoulder – the scent would disclose her secret. Jan Steen here presents such a charlatan making a diagnosis. His old-fashioned attire characterizes him as a comic character.
The theme of lovesickness was extremely popular in both painting and the theatre in the seventeenth century. Suppressed desire led to a vague syndrome known as ‘hysteria’. The satire is played out with the arrival of the doctor.
Jan Steen is known for his humorous depictions of the everyday life of farmers and the middle-classes in 17th-century Holland. His genre paintings as a rule had a strong moralistic meaning, some of them even examples of Old Dutch proverbs.