de jonckheere old masters

David Teniers

The village apothecary

Panel: 18,5 x 13,5 cm
Monogram "D.T." bottom left


We are familiar with many of David Teniers’ small paintings depicting smokers and drinkers sitting in dark taverns, as well as card games, kermises and other lively village fêtes. The master honed in on the craze for picturesque and naturalistic scenes, focusing on common folk and their daily activities. Teniers' body of work is also peopled with alchemists, dentists and surgeons in action in rustic interiors. We encounter doctors visiting people in their homes under the worried gaze of a farmer’s wife or sick peasant. This particular interest in the medical world isn’t coincidental; the second half of the 17th century corresponds to a revival in Europe of Paracelsus’ doctrine (1493 – 1543), who was known as the founding father of modern medicine and whose writings were later translated and widely published. Alchemy, surgery and the sciences in general became leading centres of interest with the invention of the microscope, for instance, and the discovery of quinine. The unfortunate corollary of such a phenomenon was the proliferation of charlatans, who were avid for and took advantage of the gullibility of people wanting to find remedies for their ills.

This was a perfect source of inspiration for Teniers, whose genre scenes and especially the singeries always contained a critique. He transposed his scathing view through his palette, combining humour and satire in his art to better portray his contemporaries. There is only one step between humour and comedy, and it comes as no surprise to see the village apothecary depicted on this small panel standing on a stage, dressed in disguise. A patient on the look-out is hiding behind a curtain while the doctor holds a bottle of urine which is supposed to inform him of his client’s state of health. There are few clues to the man’s activity, apart from these phials and pots of ointment placed on the table behind him. There is no need to show more as this is clearly a masquerade, supported by the presence of an assistant – a small monkey dressed as a nobleman. Our doctor’s outfit, which includes a mask and a pointed hat, is reminiscent of the Commedia dell’Arte’s Il Dottore Balanzone, a poor man who is as pretentious as he is incompetent, and very similar to the street pedlars and charlatans that Teniers the Younger painted on several occasions. There is a corresponding version of The Village Apothecary, which leads us to believe that the paintings were designed as a matching pair. The characters’ gaze meets and the woman behind the curtain corresponds to the man behind his. If we put the two paintings together, we obtain stage on which the actors are playing a comedy aping medicine and its lack of seriousness. Teniers took his satire one step further by imagining a similar scene where humans are replaced by monkeys. The simian doctor scoffs at the viewer with his mischievous look, as he gets ready to dispense his placebo.

This small painting is yet further evidence of the talent of the chronicler David Teniers the Younger. With a brisk and lively touch, the master uses colour to transpose one of his favourite themes and demonstrates his skill at combining a critical sense, humour and an obvious pleasure for painting.

Provenance :
Galerie Saint-Honoré, Paris, 1986;
Private collection, France.