A pharmacist’s shop sign, ‘gaper’

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Material
Softwood, Iron
Dimensions
56 x 42 x 32 cm
Provenance

Collectie Piet-Wortel, Eemnes 1980; Collectie Wagen, Laren 1990; Collectie Vos, Amsterdam 2008

A ‘gaper’ is a sculpture of a man’s head, with open mouth and often with his tongue sticking out. These examples of folk art only appear in the Netherlands and in Flanders.  
They were pharmacist’s shop signs, used to attract customers, but they also served as an indication of the quality of the shop. At first, they were attached to the canopy, but from the 17th century onwards they were often fastened directly to the facade, especially in Amsterdam. The mouth of the figure is opened in order to take medicine. The distorted facial expressions must be a result of the bad taste of the medicine.
Common types of these shop signs are the blackamoor, the muslim and the sick person. Jokers are rare. The appearance of jokers may relate to their role as helpers of medicine men since the Middle Ages. These medicine men performed their ‘medicinal arts’ on year markets and the joker would promote these acts and attract customers. He would also entertain the public, that as a result would not notice how the medicine men tricked the viewers.

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