Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"The Dentist"

“The Dentist” by Jan Miense Molenaer is a comedic piece that depicts a suffering patient, an overambitious dentist, and an amused companion. Ironically, the same dynamic could be imagined today - with more subdued emotions - 500 years later. The patient, a young man, is clutching rosary beads, which are used to say the Catholic prayers of the Rosary in the correct sequence. In this sense, the rosary beads represent the Catholic faith. “The Dentist” is connected to the Protestant Reformation during the Dutch Golden Age through the mistrust the patient shows in the Catholic faith by clutching the rosary beads. Jan Miense Molenaer portrayed the connection to the Protestant Reformation through the use of genre painting - specifically with the representation of a mistrust in religion, common clothing, and the focus on brown colors - which gained popularity through the diminishing devotion to Catholicism and the culture of the middle class in the Netherlands during the time.

"The Dentist" by Jan Miense Molenaer

The Protestant Reformation was simply the gradual shift away from the abuses of the Catholic church to form Protestant denominations. During the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands was going through its own shift away from the Catholic church, and demonstrated this shift through a large chunk of their culture, art. The art that was created during the Dutch Golden Age was mostly genre paintings. These genre paintings depicted scenes from everyday life, ranging from the lower to upper-middle class, and could be considered still-life paintings. In “The Dentist”, we see the techniques of genre painting portrayed by the commonality that the painting represents. This dentistry work would have happened fairly often, and is certainly not part of a lavish lifestyle worth admiring. The clothes the patient is wearing would best be described as rags, although the dentist is dressed in more formal, fluffy attire. As opposed to his attire expressing his spot in the higher class, it’s more likely that the attire is accentuating the comedic sub-genre of this piece. Dentists were known to not only steal your teeth, but steal your money too during this time period. Dressing the dentist in formal attire illustrates the elaborate show that the quacky dentist puts forth. As he barbarically yanks teeth out with a pair of plyers, at least he portrays himself elegantly enough to have expertise in the matter.

The National Gallery of Art argues that the rise of art in the Dutch Golden Age is linked to the explosion of pride and self-esteem from the victory of a long war with Spain for their independence. This belief is strange because the self-esteem and pride in their country doesn’t seem to reflect in the artwork that was booming from the Dutch Golden Age or in “The Dentist”. Instead of creating pieces that reflected the positive and notable achievements of the Netherlands, they focused on still-lifes and genre paintings which doesn’t boister any type of pride for their country. There are no details in “The Dentist” that suggest any type of patriotism nor was that a central theme during the Dutch Golden Age.

"Argument over a Card Game" by Jan Steen

Before the Dutch Golden Age, the artwork that was being created was being commissioned by large institutions of either large landscapes or of deeply religious, specifically Catholic, scenes. Because deeply religious scenes were in less demand during the Dutch Golden Age, these genre paintings filled the void in the market. Not only did religious pieces go out of fashion, Jan Miense Molenaer deliberately mocks people’s faith in religion in “The Dentist”. While the patient is dealing with the excruciating pain of having a tooth yanked out of his mouth, he is clutching the Rosary beads in his right hand. No matter how much strength the patient presses into his Rosary beads, the pain he’s suffering from the dentistry work is not, and will not, subside. The author uses the predicament to express the mistrust the patient is placing in the hands of the Catholic faith.

While giving an overview of the Dutch art market, Essential Vermeer 2.0 argues that the availability of art during the Dutch Golden Age, which was most likely due to the idea that the genre works of this age reinforced the shared beliefs and aspirations of the middle class, led to the drift away from obligations to create morally uplifting, religious pieces of art. In this way, art was just seen as something to embellish the home as opposed to needing to be on some type of moral high ground. This belief showcases the possible idea that instead of genre paintings filling the void of the lack of religious pieces, the desire for genre pieces pushed away the desire for religious pieces of art. This argument seems less likely to be the case because of the ongoing Protestant Reformation that was occurring during the time. Most likely, with or without the popularity of genre paintings, Catholic pieces of art would still have been diminished from the public’s desires.

Besides for the cultural shift away from Catholic ideas, genre paintings also became popular because of the economic condition of the Netherlands at the time. Although the Dutch Golden Age is supposed to represent the prosperity and power of the Netherlands, there wasn’t true prosperity until the latter stages of the Golden Age. The beginning of the Dutch Golden Age occurred immediately after their independence from Spain, which was a long and costly war. Because there was barely any money to be circulated through the Dutch economy, no institutions could afford to commission the great Dutch artists to decorate their walls with vast landscapes or Catholic works of art. Instead, the middle class families had a higher demand for art because of the important part art played in the culture of the Netherlands. Genre painting, art depicting the middle class, was thus in a higher demand, and also cheaper to create because they were typically smaller pieces that could comfortably be hung on a wall in a simple home. “The Dentist” gives us some details to strengthen some points in this argument as well. The patient, who represents the middle class being discussed in the economic argument and the target audience for these paintings, is wearing, as discussed earlier, what would best be described as rags. He certainly is not dressed in a formal manner or in expensive clothings. The same can be said about the attire of his companion.

"The Fishwife" by Adriaen Van Ostade
Another aesthetic aspect of “The Dentist” that corresponds to the middle-class, or less so fortunate financially point of view is the predominant use of brown coloring throughout the painting. Brown vests, brown walls, brown skies, there seems to be a predominant reinforcement that the background color is brown. According to Changing Minds, colors have meaning based upon the cultural meaning we put behind them, and colors themselves have no meaning beforehand. Brown, however, is the color of dirt, and a representation of things when they get dirty. The use of brown could suggest an attempt to exemplify the economic struggles of the middle-class and the Netherlands during the time of the painting.

Jonathan Israel wrote an article, "Adjusting to Hard Times: Dutch Art during Its Period of Crisis and Restructuring (c. 1621-c. 1645)", that claimed because of the Dutch recession and the lack of funds during the time, many artists that were not known for completing large, intricate pieces, had to cut back on size and quality because there wasn’t enough money in the economy for their efforts to be properly funded. He also claimed that the lack of funds would play a role in the way artists depict life in genre paintings. In “The Dentist”, we don’t see a direct depiction of there not being a lot of money in the economy, although the middle-class patient being shown is certainly not shown to be well-off. His rosary beads could easily be more expensive than anything else he is wearing. His claims explain why still life paintings, which were more widely used as personal pieces in homes, became more popular than large landscape or religious pieces, which were more widely commissioned by large institutions. Israel’s claims line up and support with the earlier economic explanation of why genre paintings became more popular than other pieces of art, specifically the religious pieces supporting Catholicism.

There isn’t a large amount of hidden meanings to be inferred in “The Dentist”. The largest jump that can be made is the relation between the patient clutching his Rosary beads to his mistrust in Catholicism. The scene overall is just a painting of a classic dentistry scene. Christopher Brown, the author of Images of a Golden Past: Dutch Genre Painting of the 17th Century, argues that Dutch genre paintings was plainly a simple, popular art form catered to a general audience. This implies that there is limited need for metaphorical or intellectual imagery and details inside 17th century pieces because of the lack of demand these details would have to the general audience. Brown’s perspective coincides with the minimal amount of abstract details and images open to interpretation in “The Dentist”.

Although there isn’t much to be inferred from the genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, a connection to the protestant reformation can still be inferred through the depiction of the patient clutching his rosary beads while wincing in pain. “The Dentist” is classified as a genre painting, although important details such as the representation of the distrust of Catholicism, simple clothing, and a focus on brown colors, displays the diminishing devotion to the Catholic faith and the culture of the middle class at the time.




Brown, Christopher. Images of a Golden Past: Dutch Genre Painting of the 17th Century. New York: Abbeville, 1984. Print.

Israel, Jonathan. "Adjusting to Hard Times: Dutch Art during Its Period of Crisis and Restructuring (c. 1621-c. 1645)." Art History 20.3 (2003): 449-76. Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.




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