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The quack

Gerrit (Gerard) Dow • Painting, 1652, 112×83 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Genre scene
Technique: Oil
Materials: Wood
Date of creation: 1652
Size: 112×83 cm
Artwork in selections: 14 selections

Description of the artwork «The quack»

The Quack painting is very exceptional in Gerrit Dou’s work in every sense. First of all, it is his largest panel, and it is painted on Spanish cedar instead of oak usual for the artist. Moreover, the composition includes significantly more figures than any other work of the artist. The figures make for an unprecedented variety of ages, types and activities.

The medical charlatan hawks his wares to a small crowd on the outskirts of Leiden. He is distinguished from the doctors in other paintings by Dou by a suit with a round collar, cut-through sleeves and a wide beret. Among the spectators, we can see an elderly woman on the right, a thief has his hand in her pocket; a schoolboy who put his hand on the table and turned to the old woman; a pancake trader who wipes her child’s bottom while listening to an impatient girl; a hunter with a dead hare hanging from the barrel of his rifle; three young people standing between the hunter and the table (one of the girls listens to the rogue attentively and hands him a coin, while her companion is more interested in her bust); and a farmer with a pipe and a cart of vegetables. The subjects of the painting are a step lower in the social hierarchy than the painter and his patrons. The fascination of the audience with the chatter of the quack is both amusing (the voluptuous man in the background takes advantage of the fact that his companion is distracted) and worrisome (the pickpocket is about to rob the cute old woman, and the schoolboy has obviously run away from school). The boy on the left, luring the bird, imitates the actions of the charlatan. He and the dog in the foreground show no interest in him.

In the arched window sits an artist with a palette and brushes, like Dou himself. Having included himself among the subjects, he looks directly at the audience, forcing them to identify themselves with the crowd around the quack.

The building in the background is Blauport, “blue gate”, the former city gate of Leiden. It wasn’t until 1667 that they took the form depicted in the panel, 15 years after Dou painted it. Therefore, the artist certainly re-painted them to give the tower a more modern look. However, there is no reason to doubt that the entire composition as a whole dates from 1652.

Confident and carefully crafted shapes, contrast of light and shadow, and the overall ambition of the stage evidence to the mature style of Dou. The use of bright colours is typical of his work in the late 1640s — early 1650s. The highlighted white brushstrokes and the accentuated carelessness of the technique draw attention to the quack’s costume, and therefore to himself. While the meticulously depicted textures, in particular, the fur of the monkey, the dog and the hare, testify to the artist’s virtuosity.

Dow made efforts to clearly identify the time and place of the event. On the paper attached to the brick wall in the foreground, there is the word kermis, “fair”. Above it hangs a mug, by which one can understand that this building is an inn. Blauport marks the borders of Leiden, with the church spire and the city mill visible in the background. By including such easily recognizable landmarks, the author enhances the impression that the genre scene takes place “here and now” in everyday life. However, as the Dutch photographer Eddie De Jong noted, the deliberate combination of such different human types already casts doubt on the realism of the image.

Many researchers believe that Dou tried to draw some kind of symbolic comparison of the charlatan and the artist in the painting. But in general, there exist different interpretations of this work; for the most part, they only differ in the place of emphasis.

Written by Vlad Maslov