Art and Lice

(Revised: 3-2-09)

15th C.              A walrus ivory, double-sided comb from 15th century France, called the “King David” comb, resides in the Hunt Museum. The ‘H’ shaped comb is 16 cm wide and 12 cm high. It has one row of coarse teeth and one row of fine teeth. “It is decorated on both sides in low relief with carved scenes depicting the story of King David and Bathsheba. One side shows King David sitting by a fountain and playing a harp with three women, this is surrounded by floral decoration. The other side shows David, Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah the Hittite, and two female attendants.” The Hunt Museum is located in Limerick, Ireland. [Anon., 2005a]

c. 1400             A ivory double-sided comb from northern Italy is located in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The center panel of the comb has a bass relief carving. [Anon., 2009a]

c. 1450            A painted and engraved, ivory, double-sided comb, the “Fountain of Youth,” was found in the upper Rhine region of Germany. It depicts  medieval adults, and a fountain. The comb is held in the Victoria and Albert Museum (no. 231-1867). [Anon., 2009b]

1491                 The earliest known representation of human lice is from a woodcut in the first edition of ‘Hortus sanitatis’ (The Garden of Health), which was compiled and published in 1491 by Jacob Meydenbach, Mainz. [Mumcuoglu, 2002] The drawing shows a kneeling man being de-loused by a standing woman using a brush. A crude cartoon-like representation of three oversized lice, each an oval with legs, are seen running around the water bowl. [Anon., 2005b]

c. 1500            Two intricately carved openwork, double-sided combs of boxwood, one with ivory inlays, were made in northern France in c. 1500. They now reside in the French Musee National du Moyen Age, Paris, France. [Anon., 2009c]

1546                 Bhatkal (North Kanara District), India was in ruins by 1720, except for ten small temples covered with copper and stone. Khetappayya Narayana Temple, which was built in 1546, contains sculptures depicting the social life of the period.  In one panel, a man relaxes on a cot while his wife caresses him and picks lice from his long hair. In another panel, a child is being fondled by his father, while the mother is busy picking the lice from the husband’s head. [Kamat, 1987]

c. 1555             Tintoretto (1518-1594) painted “Susanna and the Elders” in c. 1555. The painting shows a ivory double-sided comb among Susana’s luxury items. The painting is held by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. [Kren & Marx, 2009]

c. 1598             Caravaggio (1571-1610) painted “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” in c. 1596. The painting, which shows a double-side comb, is held at the Institute of Arts, Detroit. [Kren & Marx, 2009]

17th Cent.        17th century physicians still followed Aristotle’s dictum that lice were born from sweat by a “spontaneous generation” phenomenon. [Aristotle, 350 BC]  However, their patients continued to treat themselves by delousing. This is often shown in 17th century paintings, especially in Dutch “genre painting”. [Cabotin, 1994] [Mumcuoglu, 2002] [Johansen, 2007]

17th C.             Sculptures representing trained monkeys delousing humans can be found in Lisbon, Portugal. [Anon., 2004]

1631                 Dirck Hals (1591-1656) painted Moederzorg (Mother’s Care), which shows a mother grooming a child’s hair by lamplight. This was one of the earliest Dutch paintings using this theme. [Wheelock, 2004]

1648                 Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam (1622-1679) painted “Woman Combing a Child’s Hair” in 1648. The picture shows the use of a delousing comb. [Wheelock, 2004]

1651                 Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681) painted “The Stone Grinder’s Family” in 1651. The painting shows a woman delousing her daughter while her husband grinds a steel blade under the eye of her son. [Johansen, 2007]

1652                 Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681) painted “Woman Combing a Child’s Hair” in 1652. The picture shows the use of a delousing comb. [EID, 1999] [Anon., 2008]

1658-60           Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) painted “A Mother’s Duty,” which shows a seated mother delousing the hair of her kneeling child. The painting is located in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. [Johansen, 2007]

1669                 Caspar Netscher (1639-1684) painted “Woman Combing a Child’s Hair,” which now resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The painting shows a woman combing a young boy’s hair, while (nearby) his sister makes faces in a mirror. [Dunder, 2009]

1670-1675       Bartolome Murillo (1617-1682) painted “The Toilette” in 1670-1675. The painting depicts an old woman searching for lice in the hair of a seated young boy who is petting a dog. [Kren & Marx, 2009]

1673                 A tortoiseshell double-sided comb and engraved case made in Jamaica in 1673 are now located in the Victoria and Albert Museum (no.  524-1877). [Anon., 2009d]

1690                 In 1857, the British Museum acquired an elaborately engraved tortoise shell comb with two rows of teeth, from the Bernal Collection. The comb was engraved “Port Royall in Jamaica, 1690” [Bohn, 1857]


Anonymous, “Lice Planet,” Mona Lisa Production, (2004)

Anonymous, “Comb with scenes from the life of King David and Bethsheba,” The Hunt Museum, Limerick (2005a)

Anonymous, “De-lousing illustration,” Image reference 22678, The Natural History Museum, London (2005b) ;

Anonymous, “Gerard ter Borch – A Mother Combing the hair of her child, known as ‘Hunting for Lice,” Mauritshuis, The Royal Picture Gallery (2008)

*Anonymous, “At Home in Renaissance Italy – An impact Case Study,”  page 4,Victoria and Albert Museum, (2009a)  **1400

*Anonymous, “Victoria and Albert Museum no. 231-1867” (2009b) **1450

*Anonymous, “Deux peignes,”  in “Les collections La vie quotidienne au Moyen Age,” Musee National du Moyen Age (2009c)  ** 1500

*Anonymous, “Victoria and Albert Museum no. 524-1877” (2009d)  **1673

Aristotle, “The History of Animals,” Book V, part 31, (350 BC)

Bohn H.G., “A Guide to the Knowledge of Pottery, Porcelain, and Other Objects of Vertu,” page 170, H.G. Bohn, London (1857),M1

Cabotin P.P., historical article in: Hist. Sci. Med. 28(4):381-8 (1994)

Dunder J., “ Woman Combing a Child’s Hair,” Museum Syndicate, Cedar Rapids, IA (2009)

EID, “Woman Combing a Child’s Hair,” cover page, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5(2): Mar-Apr (1999)

Johansen B., “Nit-Picking in the Golden Age of Dutch Art,” NEH Seminar 2007; The Dutch Republic and Britain: The Making of Modern Society and a European World Economy (2007) Http://

Kamat J.E., “Social life in Medieval Karnataka,” Abhinav Publishers, Karnataaka India (1980); also “House of Pictures,” (2007)

Kren E. and Marx D., “The Toilette” in “Web Gallery of Art,” Hungary (2009)

Mumcuoglu K.Y., “Human Lice in Figurative Art and History,” 2nd International Congress on Phthiraptera, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, July 8-12, (2002)

Wheelock A.K., “Gerard ter Borch,” page 90, Yale University Press (2004)

©2009 by Harry A. Morewitz, PhD.  All rights reserved.