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A Man Performing a Painful Operation on a Woman's Tooth

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

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This tiny circular painting on copper shows an apothecary or surgeon attending to a woman's teeth. He places his hand firmly on her head to stop her moving it suddenly as a result of the pain caused by his instrument. The pain which she feels is shown by her gestures: she stiffens her arms, clenches her fingers around her thumbs, and turns her eyes up to the surgeon in appeal. Paintings of tooth extractions are quite plentiful from the seventeenth century, but this one is different: it does not necessarily show an extraction, and the patient is a woman. In most paintings showing painful surgery, the patient is a man, while in paintings of medical diagnosis the patient is a woman. This one was painted by Pieter van Laer. Although van Laer was born and died in Haarlem, he spent most of his career in Rome, where he was known by the nickname 'Bamboccio' (puppet), owing to his appearance: according to one acquaintance, he was a shock-headed hunchback, with long legs, a short trunk, and no neck, and he would sometimes pretend to be a baboon.

Wellcome Collection



oil on copper


H 20.5 x W 20.5 cm

Accession number


Acquisition method

purchased by Henry S. Wellcome, c.1900–1936

Work type



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Wellcome Collection

183 Euston Road, London, Greater London NW1 2BE England

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