Monday, 8 October 2012


“But love’s a malady without a cure.” - John Dryden

Magpie Tales has selected the painting “Sick Woman” of 1665, by Jan Steen as the creative stimulus for this week’s meme. Jan Steen (Havickszoon) was born ca. 1626, in Leiden, Netherlands and died Feb. 3, 1679, in Leiden. He was a painter, ranked immediately after Rembrandt and Hals as a painter of everyday scenes. Steen is unique among leading 17th-century Dutch painters for his humour; he has often been compared to the French comic playwright Molière, his contemporary, and indeed both men treated life as a vast comedy of manners. Some of the artist’s biblical and classical paintings may have been inspired by the contemporary stage.

Steen was enrolled at the University of Leiden in 1646 and in 1648 was one of the founding members of the Leiden painters’ Guild of St. Luke. His early teachers seem to have been the historical painter Nicolaus Knupfer at Utrecht, genre and landscape painter Adriaen van Ostade at Haarlem, and the landscapist Jan van Goyen at The Hague. In 1649 Steen married van Goyen’s daughter and settled at The Hague for the next few years. He moved to Delft in 1654 and to Haarlem in 1661. In 1670 he was back in Leiden, and in 1673 he married again.

In Steen’s landscapes, including his winter scenes, small earthy figures recall those of Adriaen and of Isack van Ostade. In his later works the figures are larger, less crowded, and more individually characterised. He shows them playing cards or skittles, or carousing in their cups. His frequent use of inns probably reflects his own background as the son of a brewer and sometime brewer and tavernkeeper himself. He was a master at capturing subtleties of facial expression, especially in children. His best works display great technical skill, particularly in the handling of colour.

During Steen’s last years, his paintings began to anticipate the Rococo style of the 18th century, becoming increasingly elegant and somewhat less energetic and showing a heavy French influence and an increased flamboyance.

I have selected and detail from the painting  and came up (predictably, perhaps) with this:

The Malady

“Doctor, heal me for I am sick,
My pulse is weak and my face pallid,
I have no appetite and I am weak.
My fevered brow turns quickly cool and clammy…”

He takes her pulse
And looks at her intently.
His practiced eye
Examines every sign.

“Doctor, heal me for surely
I shall die forthwith.
My heart beats weakly
And my breast heaves belabouredly…”

He touches gently,
Hearkens the heartbeat,
Listens to ragged breathing,
Observes and notes.

“Doctor, prithee, give me physic,
For soon, I feel, I shall expire.
If not to die today, I shall swoon,
And breathe my last as morrow breaks…”

He looks at her shrewdly
And he nods his head,
With serious countenance,
At last observing:

“Indeed, my lady, thou art sick!
But no degree of physic I can give
Will cure what ails thee.
Thy heart will surely break,

And thy breath will fade,
If remedy be not given.

But, all my healing arts are not enough,
And my experience wanting;

All my knowledge useless,
For love cannot
by herbs be cured…”


  1. Nicely crafted! Thanks for all the research, I read a brief summary before I wrote mine...but not with this much detail! Thanks....

  2. Elegantly done, and I learned something...

  3. I have seen quite a number of Steen paintings called A Sick Woman, at least 5 that I can think of. What they all have in common:
    A) a doctor holding the wrist pulse of a patient and
    B) the young woman lying back with her head on a pilow.

    But your version of the Sick Woman has richer, clearer colours and the woman is much less pathetic. Oh I love Steen and his mid 17th century Dutch colleagues!!

  4. ah the broken heart....very good!!

  5. Such is a broken heart...time will hopefully mend it.

    Thanks for the research.

    Anna :o]