Contributed in memory of Dr. Bernard & Mrs. Jeanette Gordon Halperin, a gift from their children
The Doctor’s Surgery is one of several medical genre scenes painted by Egbert van Heemskerck, the Elder (1634 -1704), the son of a Haarlem doctor who returned to the theme more than a dozen times over his career, depicting surgeries, apothecaries, deathbeds, and other medical treatments. In this example, Heemskerck captured a dramatic scene rich in pathos and tension, an emergency surgery to save a man at death’s door. The patient, slumped over in a chair at the center of the composition, is bled and probed by a local surgeon while an attendant at left hurriedly readies additional surgical tools. To the right, a woman covers her face in fear or grief. Behind these figures, a line of prospective patients in similar states of distress and awaiting the surgeons treatment has formed. Vanitas symbols incorporated into the interior of the doctor’s quarters—including the skull and femur on the floor at left, and a niche at right with a skull, drawing of a bird, glass bottle, and an extinguished candle bell—pronounce pessimistically on the patient’s fate. Heemskerck’s early upbringing in a doctors household likely accounts for the keen insight and skill with which the artist has rendered this scene, imbued with both accuracy and tense drama.
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