This dental masterpiece happens to be one of the most famous paintings by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio (Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1571 – 1610). It is also one of my favorite Baroque paintings depicting dentistry. The Tooth Puller is believed to have been painted in 1609. As a painting known worldwide, it has different names in different languages, including The Tooth Puller and Il Cavadenti and L’arracheur de dents and Der Zahnzieher.
The “dentist” here is pictured with a slight smile or even smirk on his face. The onlookers – from the very young boy at left foreground to the older individuals – look on with both anxiety and curiosity. There is some light in the room, presumably from candles or a fireplace. The woman on the right, with her sunken-in profile indicating she likely has no teeth herself, is probably comparing her experiences having teeth extracted to this scene. The “patient” is grabbing the chair with one hand and his left hand is open and stiff. He is in obvious pain from the tooth extraction.
This painting has many similarities to the work of Gerard van Honthorst who produced a similar masterpiece in 1627. In the 18 years separating these two paintings, very little had changed in dentistry. No gloves, no novocaine, similar instruments, and groups of onlookers. It would take more than 200 years for dentistry to begin to evolve beyond this. As a dentist who routinely removes teeth when needed in my dental practice in Orange, CT, I find these paintings fascinating!
I was so enthralled with this dental painting that I even took a trip to Firenze (Florence), Italy to see it! Caravaggio’s masterpiece is located in the Palatine Gallery, a museum within the Palazzo Pitti. The Palazzo Pitti is located on the south side of the River Arno and is a Renaissance Palace with hundreds of works of art. Also within the walls of the Palazzo Pitti are the world famous Boboli Gardens. Photographs within the museum were forbidden, so I was unable to take a picture of Caravaggio’s painting.
This painting is another reminder of how far dentistry has come. I hope everyone enjoys this painting as much as I do.