Arguably the most important Dutch artist of the 18th Century, Troost's first profession was as an actor at the Amsterdam Theatre, from circa 1717-20 and 1721-4, before taking up painting. Initially predominately a portraitist, Troost seems never to have abandoned his thespian connections and, from 1732, produced a number of depictions of theatrical scenes, as well as painting a number of stage sets for his old theatre (none of which latter are known to survive). The former practice was not new - a number of seventeenth-century Dutch artists had preceded him in depicting farces and comedies, including most notably Steen, who was an important influence on the artist - but Troost was responsible for reviving the genre. As in the present work, he normally placed his subjects in an everyday setting, such as a domestic interior, a town, inn or country house, which gives them the appearance of genre scenes rather than contemporary stage sets.
The present picture is a study for the eponymous work formerly in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin, that was destroyed by fire in 1945. It displays admirably the confidence and liveliness of brushstroke that typify this part of Troost's oeuvre, underscored by the sophistication of technique that made his paintings so sought after by his contemporaries. There are some slight variations between this and the Berlin painting, most notably the inclusion here of the girl and her dog in the foreground, of the maid behind the seated figures, and the lower ceiling in the present work. Due to the demand for his works, Troost frequently painted versions of his more popular compositions, and a number are recorded of the Berlin painting (see J.W. Niemeijer, Cornelis Troost, Assen, 1973, pp. 255). The present sketch is, however, the artist's first depiction of the subject and, besides possessing a freshness lacking in the subsequent versions, unique in the above-mentioned differences.
Le Malade Imaginaire [The Hypochondriac] was Molière's last play, written in 1672. It is set in the Parisian home of the wealthy Argan (the titular hypochondriac), who upholds the firm belief that he requires as much medical attention as possible in his sickly disposition. He therefore arranges for his eldest daughter, Angelique, to marry a foolish quack, Diafoirus, despite the fact that she is already in love with the dashing Cleante; at the same time, Argan's conniving wife, Beline, wants Angelique to join a convent so that she herself will inherit her husband's fortune. Together Angelique and Cleante, assisted by the clever maid, Toinette, outwit those scheming against them by persuading Argan to become a doctor himself. By the time he wrote the play, Molière had fallen out of favour at court due to the political intrigues of the day; a sick man at the time, he cast himself as Argon, making use of the tubercular cough from which he was suffering. On the fourth night of his production, he was seized by a fit of coughing and died later that night.
The present work depicts a moment from Act 2, scene 6, and represents, in the foreground, Cleante and Angelique with her younger sister, Louison, playing on the floor; behind them are a group composed of, from left to right, Diafoirus, Diafoirus's father, Toinette and Argan himself. Posing as Angelique's music instructor, Cleante is invited by Argan to demonstrate his daughter's singing ability to Diafoirus; the two lovers thereupon sing an extemporised duet from an imaginary opera that repeats the story of their own predicament (and also at the same time pledging their love to each other) to the great displeasure of Argan.