A visit of the doctor
A visit of the doctor

A visit of the doctor

Cornelis Bega
1631 – Haarlem – 1664
The Doctor’s Visit
Oil on canvas 36.5 x 29.2 cmSigned and dated lower right: “C. bega A 1662”

Probably bought by Jérôme de Vigneux in The Netherlands for the Geneva collector François Tronchin1
Collection of the silversmith Martin Pierre Dubois, Paris
His sale, Paris (Lebrun, Julliot), 20 December 1785, lot 50 (“Corneille Bega. L’intérieur d’un appartement, où l’on voit une femme malade, la tête penchée et appuyée sur son oreiller, et les mains croisées sur ses genoux, tandis qu’un Médecin observe une bouteille remplie d’urine: le reste est orné de différens accessoires.

Peinture sur toile collée sur bois. Hauteur 12 pouces, largeur 10 pouces et demi”, sold for 71 livres 19). Sale, Chalon-sur-Saône (Hervé Bretaudière), 22 November 1998, lot no. unknown Sale, New York (Sotheby’s), 28 May 1999, lot 88, ill.
With Jack Kilgore & Co., New York, 1999-2005
With Noortman Master Paintings, Maastricht
Private collection, Belgium

Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum; Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,
Gemäldegalerie, Cornelis Bega. Eleganz und raue Sitten, (catalogue edited by P. van den Brink and B.W. Lindemann) 2012, cat. nr. 64, pp. 229-231, 281, ill.

In a dimly lit, soberly furnished interior a young woman lies in a chair while a doctor sits by her side. Weak daylight falls into the room through the window at the back. The pale face of the woman catches most of the light. With his right hand the doctor holds a bottle of urine. He is subtly silhouetted against the neutral background. A boxbed is on the left hand side and in the left foreground a modest still life of two flasks, a plate and a small earthenware pot sits on a stool. 

The subject of our painting, a doctor’s visit, is a quite popular theme in Dutch seventeenth-century painting. Invariably, the patients are young women and most often the exact nature of the illness can easily be deduced from details added by the painter as clues for the beholder. Roughly, one may distinguish two scenarios: lovesickness and pregnancy.2 The doctor in our scene is a so-called piskijker. Together with feeling the patient’s pulse the examination of urine was an ancient tool traceable to Greek writers such as Hippocrates and Galenus.3 In the Middle Ages it was still believed that uroscopy yielded significant information about the balance between the four humours in the blood. But medical science had progressed considerably by the sixteenth century and the idea that uroscopy in itself could serve as a sufficient method to arrive at a definite diagnosis was abandoned. That quacks nonetheless persisted in a liberal application of uroscopy is evident from various sources. The Alkmaar doctor Petrus Forestus (1521 – 1597) fulminated against the abuse of the uroscopic practice in his Het onzeker ende bedrieghlick oordeel der wateren.4 Forestus was not alone in his concerns. Much later, in 1642, the famous Dordrecht doctor Johannes van Beverwijck (1594 - 1647) expressed similar warnings in his influential Schat der Ongesontheyt.5 The continued abuse of urine examination is reflected in painting. Quite a few seventeenthcentury doctor’s visits, among which are famous treatments by Jan Steen, Gerard Dou and Frans van Mieris the Elder, show quacksalver doctors depending on uroscopy as their main diagnostic tool.6

The doctor in our painting has just assessed his diagnosis by inspecting the bottle’s content and appears to be explaining his patient the result of his examination. The beholder is kept in the dark about the nature of the patient’s physical problem. This open narrative approach is typical for Bega’s mature genre scenes. Instead of spelling out the nature and outcome of the confrontation between the protagonists, Bega in these paintings left room for multiple interpretations and preferred the stillness of an isolated moment. This dramaturgical strategy was developed by Gerard ter Borch in the 1650’s and then adopted and successfully applied by, among other genre painters, Bega.

Most of the seventeenth-century doctor’s visits strike a satirical tone and the doctors are nearly always quacks and represented with a strong caricaturist flavour. These scenes are part of a rich satirical tradition initiated in the early sixteenth century by Hieronymus Bosch and Lucas van Leyden. Bega also painted a number of satirical scenes of quack doctors.7 In the present scene the satirical element has become implicit but as a “piskijker” and wearing old-fashioned, even humble dress our doctor is certainly a quack. However, Bega has transformed him from a mere theatrical character into a real person.

Bega began his career depicting scenes in this comical vein; boorish taverns, furnished with nursing mothers, prostitutes, gamblers and alchemists. However, from about 1658 onwards, his genre scenes became less densely populated. He started to paint tranquil and finely balanced compositions such as the present. The predilection for scenes with fewer figures allowed the artist to scrutinize the psychological depth of his figures: the face of Bega’s doctor shows a worried expression and he seems genuinely concerned with the woman’s wellbeing. It also invited the artist to increasingly focus on the accurate rendition of object textures, which is evident in our painting as well. The artist continued to recruit his characters from the lower ranks of society, but they now have become individuals, behaving civilized so that the viewer can relate with them.

One of Bega’s major achievements, also beautifully brought to use in our painting, is his subtle, warm palette of a range of subdued colours. Some time after the tonal phase in Dutch painting had made way for brighter colours, Bega developed his chromatic colour scheme, which he sometimes effectively enlivened with modest accents of contrasting colour. Bega’s differentiated use of colour ties in with the already mentioned increasingly painstaking description of tactile qualities of all kinds of different materials and with a growing interest in capturing atmospheric effects.

Considering the brevity of his life, Cornelis Bega was enormously prolific, producing drawings, etchings, monotypes and paintings. Initially, Bega’s talent as a draughtsman outweighed his skill as a painter. Bega’s earliest drawings already betray his precocious


talent as a draughtsman. Bega loved to experiment on paper and his many drawings show an astonishing technical versatility. It was in his oil paintings, however, that Bega brought the efforts of so many hours of drawing to fruition. Bega developed into an excellent painter by continuing to draw after life. All of Bega’s paintings are genre pieces and of similar size. In his earliest paintings he already shows a great deal of promise, especially in the ease with which he renders companies of figures in anatomically correct poses and conjures space. In these early works Bega’s debt to Ostade is obvious but it would be hard to confuse their work.

Our painting dates from 1662. It was then, in the final four years of his life, that Bega reached the peak of his artistic powers as a painter. This can be judged from the dated paintings, which permit to date rather accurately the undated ones as well. All his star pieces date from this short period. The fine qualities that characterize Bega’s late style can be admired in our painting as well. Typical is the evocative mood. One of the scene’s other charms is the frontal lighting, which brings about a sophisticated chiaroscuro. This light is used to portray all the different of draperies - the woman’s garments, head kerchief, napkin and rug. Bega keenly observed and skilfully rendered their folding and convincingly suggests their weight and feel.

Our painting presumably belonged to the Swiss banker, writer and patron François Tronchin (1704 - 1798), one of the greatest collectors of the eighteenth century.8 The majority of his collection was sold en bloc to Empress Catherine the Great in 1770 through the mediation of Dénis Diderot and thus became one of the early cornerstones of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The Cleveland Museum of Art owns Jean-Etienne Liotard’s well-known portrait of Tronchin of 1757. Liotard portrayed the collector seated in his study with, unframed, one of his top pieces, Rembrandt’s Woman in Bed of around 1645, standing on an easel beside him (now in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).

Cornelis Bega was named after his illustrious grandfather Cornelis van Haarlem, at one time Haarlem’s foremost artist. He inherited artistic genes from both mother’s and father’s side. Their families numbered artists in various media: sculptors, painters and gold- and silversmiths. Cornelis’ father was the gold- and silversmith Pieter Begijn and his mother Maria Cornelis, Cornelis van Haarlem’s daughter. Cornelis presumably received his first instructions in art from his father. According to Arnold Houbraken, the eighteenth-century biographer of artists, he then studied with the doyen of peasant genre painting, Adriaen van Ostade. This was probably after Bega’s father died in 1648. Ostade is reported to have called Bega his first and best pupil. In 1653, Bega travelled together with the artists Dirck Helmbreker, Vincent van der Vinne and Guillaume Dubois to Germany and Switzerland. He returned within a year and the following year registered with the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem. The plague academic of 1664 cut short his life and he was buried in the St. Bavo’s Church on 30th August that year.

1 In fall 1779 the merchant and agent Jérôme de Vigneux reported to his client, Tronchin, he had acquired a painting by Bega during his second visit to the Netherlands of a ‘femme malade avec son médecin’. See: P. Michel, “Le commerce du tableau de collection entre l’Allemagne et la France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle vu au travers de l’activité du marchand Jérôme de Vigneux, de Mannheim (1727 – 1794)” in B. Marx & K. Rehberg (eds.), Sammeln als Institution. Von der fürstlichen Wunderkammer zum Mäzenatentum des Staates, Berlin 2006, p. 177.
2 See: J.B. Bedaux, ‘Minnekoorts-, zwangerschaps- en doodsverschijnselen op zeventiendeeeuwse schilderijen’, Antiek 10 (1975), pp. 17-42.
3 On uroscopy and its depiction in art see: Bedaux 1975 and K. Türk, Mediziner, Quacksalber und Alchimisten : Niederländische Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts aus der Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection an der Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee 2005, pp. 18-24.
4 De incerto, fallaci, urinarum judicio, quo uromantes, ad perniciem multorum aegrotantium, utuntur: & qualia illi sint observanda, tum praestanda, qui recte de urinis sit judicaturus, libri tres, per Dialogisnum contra Uroscopos empiricos concinnati, Leiden 1589. The Dutch translation appeared posthumously in 1626:  Het onzeker ende bedrieghlick oordeel der wateren: het welcke de pis-besienders tot verderf van veel siecken ghebruycken, The Hague 1626.
5 Schat der ongesontheyt, ofte Genees-konste van de sieckten. Verçiert met historyen, ende
kopere platen. Als oock met verssen van heer Jacob Cats, Dordrecht 1642.
6 See for instance Jan Steen’s, Doctor’s Visit in London, Wellington Museum, Apsley House. A particular fine “piskijker” can be admired in Dou’s Dropsical Woman of 1663 in Paris, Louvre. A well-known interpretation of a Doctor’s Visit by Van Mieris, dated 1667, is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
7 For a discussion of Bega’s scenes with quacks see Scott 1984, vol. 1, pp. 194-202 and for listings of other paintings featuring doctors and quacks; vol. 2, pp. 290-293.
8 On Tronchin see for instance: H. Tronchin, Le conseiller François Tronchin et ses amis, Paris 1895; J. Cailleux, ‘François Tronchin, Amateur of Art’, The Burlington Magazine 103 (1961), July, advertisement supplement nr. 8, pp. ii, iii and R. Loche, De Genève à l’Hermitage. Les collection de François Tronchin, Geneva 1974.