Art and the myth of the “wandering womb”

Laurinda S. Dixon, PhD
Syracuse University, New York, United States (Winter 2015)

The Doctor’s Visit, 1663 Jan Steen Taft Museum of Art
The Doctor’s Visit, 1663
Jan Steen
Taft Museum of Art

Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings bearing modern titles such as “The Doctor’s Visit” or “The Lovesick Maiden” are common.1 They were once produced in great numbers and, with some variations, illustrate the same thing.  The example by Jan Steen in the Taft Museum in Cincinnati (Fig. 1) is typical. Here a pretty young woman sits propped up in a chair, her face flushed and her eyes fixed on something only she imagines. A physician solicitously takes her pulse in the privacy of her well furnished home. Though the listless maiden is dressed in an expensive, fur-trimmed jacket, her chemise and corset are unlaced, revealing a titillating glimpse of ample bosom. A suggestive painting of Arcadian lovemaking appears on the wall above her. It hangs next to a lute, a musical instrument whose narrow fingerboard and rounded belly often allude to the female body in works of art. This ailing lady and her many sisters are distinctly alluring. They clearly suffer, but from what? And what does “love” have to do with it?

Historians of medicine have interpreted these paintings in reference to prevailing illnesses, such as chlorosis and neurasthenia, believed to afflict fashionable women who wore constricting corsets.2  But when we view these works in the context of the time and place in which they were created, another diagnosis presents itself. Specifically, all aspects of these paintings correspond to a commonly diagnosed female disorder called “hysteria,” or “furor uterinus.”3 This illness, in which the uterus was believed to travel throughout the body, or become inflamed and “suffocated,” was noted as epidemic among women from ancient times through the seventeenth century, when its diagnosis peaked. Before Freud, the word “hysteria,” derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” was not a psychological term. In the medical literature of the time, the condition referred to a plethora of mental and physical symptoms caused by a disordered womb. Victims suffered apathy, depression, mood swings, perverted appetite, and sleeplessness, accompanied by physical symptoms of listlessness, abdominal pain, difficult breathing, and fainting. Hungry and bored, the uterus roamed throughout the body looking for food and purpose, heating and violently compressing vital organs in a “fit,” or “paroxysm.” From Plato onward, medical authorities described the fickle uterus as an independent animal whose appetites and movements were beyond the control of body or mind.

Celibate women – virgins, widows and nuns – were especially threatened by their unpredictable anatomy. Certain activities were believed to exacerbate the capricious uterus. Reading (especially Latin), working mathematical problems, wearing male clothing, cutting the hair, and delaying marriage and childbirth, were activities guaranteed to start the womb on its restless journey. Women were instructed to engage in frequent sex (with their husbands, of course), and maintain a state of continuous pregnancy to keep the troublesome womb satisfied and occupied.  Failure to cater to the womb’s needs could result in illness, loss of femininity, miscarriage, and even death. For women, avoidance of matrimony and pregnancy was not only against nature, but also unhealthy.

The “Doctors Visit” paintings suggest the heated displaced womb in ways that would have been recognized immediately by most viewers, but are lost to us today. For example, the motif of the foot warmer, which appears in all of Jan Steen’s sickrooms, is an integral clue to the cause of the women’s suffering. Early foot warmers were comprised of two elements, a ceramic or metal brazier containing hot coals, and a square, open wooden box which enclosed it.4 Warm underwear for women had yet to be invented, and this essential object provided much needed warmth when placed under long skirts. In the paintings, however, foot warmers defy their function. Charcoal burners appear deliberately placed on the floor, outside their three-sided enclosures and away from the suffering maidens. Sometimes, as in the Cincinnati painting, the empty box still rests under voluminous skirts, with its open side turned toward the viewer, gaping suggestively between the woman’s legs. The earthenware vessel then becomes a convincing metaphor of the displaced, heated womb, which has wandered from its abdominal enclosure.

It is not by chance that the majority of the “Doctor’s Visit” paintings were produced by artists from the city of Leiden, whose famous medical school invented the specialty of gynecology.5 Nor is it by accident that interest in hysteria peaked in the seventeenth century, a time of increased agitation among women for legal and personal power.6  The threat of the diseased uterus was a powerful impediment against women’s entrance into the traditional male spheres of business and science. Early modern anatomists, among them Andreas Vesalius, questioned ancient Galenic paradigms, leading the way toward a realistic perception of the uterus.7 Despite these revelations, the myth of the hot, wandering womb persisted throughout the seventeenth century. Though the “Doctor’s Visit” paintings survive today as quaint curiosities, they once communicated powerful messages about the roles and responsibilities of women in a troubled time.

Notes

  1. For a broad discussion of the subject of the female sickroom in Dutch seventeenth-century paintings, see Laurinda S. Dixon, Perilous Chastity:  Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).
  2. Discussion of these paintings in light of modern women’s illnesses began in the late nineteenth century.  See, for example, Henry Meige, “Les peintres de la médecine:  Le mal d’amour.”  Nouvelle iconogrphie de La Salpétrière 12 (1899): 57-68, 227-60, 340-52, 420-32, summarized in Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, “Lovesickness in Art and Medicine,” Hektoen International:  A Journal of Medical Humanities, 3, #4 (December 2011), www.hektoeninternational.org/Lovesickness.html.
  3. The literature devoted to uterine hysteria is vast, and spans over three thousand years of medical history. It is the subject of the first known medical text on any subject, the ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, ca. 1550 B.C.E.  The concept of the disordered womb was a fixture of Galenic medicine, upon which university curricula were based until the eighteenth century.  See Mark S. Micale, “Hysteria and Its Historiography:  A Review of Past and Present Writings,” Science 27 (1989): 223-61; 319-31; and Ilza Veith, Hysteria:  The History of a Disease (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1965).
  4. For the foot warmer in Dutch art, see Wayne Franits, Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993), 48-51.
  5. Leiden University led the world in the study of women’s illnesses, producing thirty-three medical dissertations on the subject in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the “Doctor’s Visit” paintings were also produced.  For the university’s pivotal role in medical history, see Theodoor Herman Lunsingh Scheurleer and Guillaume Henri Marie Posthumus Meyjes, eds., Leiden University in the Seventeenth Century:  An Exchange of Learning (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975).
  6. For the impact of medical knowledge on the social expectations of early modern women, see Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women:  A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  7. Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Basel:  Joannis Oporini, 1543).

 


LAURINDA S. DIXON, PhD, is Professor of Art History at Syracuse University. She has lectured and written widely on the interrelationship of art and medicine. Her books include The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art ca. 1500-1700 (2013), In Sickness and in Health: Disease as Metaphor in Art and Popular Culture (2004), and Perilous Chastity:  Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine (1995). Her other books and many articles explore not only art and medicine, but also interrelationships between art and alchemy, astrology, cartography, music, and pharmacy.

 

 

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