The subject of the quack doctor was the object of much spirited satire in the 17th century Netherlands, and was a theme that David Teniers explored throughout his lengthy and very successful artistic career. One of his first treatments of the subject is the panel dated 1636 in the Szépüvészeti Museum, Budapest (inv. no. 565; see M. Klinge, in the exhibition catalogue, David Teniers the Younger, Antwerp, 1991, no. 14) and one of his last is dated 1678 (private collection; op. cit., no. 93). All three pictures show a barber-surgeon dressed in a distinctive fur-rimmed cap, bent over an elderly villager treating his foot, while his wife looks on and an apprentice works at a table behind in a dark interior. A brass shaving bowl is prominently placed in the foreground as a repoussoir, reminding the viewer of the so-called doctor's true profession, that of a simple barber who has branched out to perform operations (often even accompanying armies into battle). It is no coincidence that in all three pictures an owl - a contemporary symbol of human blindness and folly - gazes intently upon the scene.
However, the mood in the present panel, which Klinge dates to the mid-1660s, is notably more benign than in both the earlier and later paintings, and perhaps reflects the assurance of the artist in a decade that was rich in opportunities, and in which Teniers finally achieved noble status. The figures, which confidently fill the space, are endowed with a greater sense of movement, gesture and facial expression, each one representing a very different age and carefully delineated character-type. The young apprentice catches the viewer's eye knowingly, thus making the viewer complicit in the scene. The motif of the elderly bearded man, hunched forward on a wooden chair, with his cap perched on the back of the chair, is one that Teniers repeated to great effect in some of his finest compositions, including Le bonnet vert and Le bonnet rouge (Madrid, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and England, Wrotham Park Collection, respectively; op. cit., nos. 13 and 32). Earthy colours of tan and grey-green predominate, with the red accent of the barber-surgeon's hat echoed subtly by the pink of the baby's clothes. Above all, it is the details of the still life that confirms the quality of this panel, from the depiction of reflective glass bottles stopped with scrunched paper, to the array of pottery vases of all shapes and sizes, each surface texture rendered with a dexterity that is characteristic of Teniers at his very best.