Fildes, Sir Luke (English, 1843-1927)

The Doctor

Reference Type:
c. 1891
In this compelling painting, a doctor stares down intently at a young patient, perhaps wondering what to do next or waiting for a sign that his treatment is helping. The child’s mother sits in the background, her head down and her hands wringing in despair; the father places a hand on his wife’s shoulder and intently watches the doctor. It is not a wealthy household—two chairs have been pushed together to make the bed, and the room is not richly furnished. Yet the doctor gives them all the caring attention he would a person who could pay a higher fee. Although the outcome of the illness is unclear, the painting’s composition—focused on the passion of the doctor and his young charge through the golden light cast by the lamp—implies that the patient will eventually recover. The Doctor was created in response to a request from Sir Henry Tate, who after deciding to found the Tate Gallery in London commissioned fifty-seven artists to help start his collection. From Sir Luke Fildes, he asked for “an English subject.” Fildes chose this theme based on an event from his own life—his young son Philip had died on Christmas Day in 1877. He remembered how the doctor sat by his son’s bedside constantly at the end, which was a great comfort to the artist. He said of his planned painting: “to me, the subject will be more pathetic than any, more terrible perhaps, but yet more beautiful.” It became an extremely popular image, with more than 1 million prints sold in the United States alone. In 1947, it was used on a postage stamp commemorating the centennial of the American Medical Association. This painting is symbolic of the role of the doctor as protector, or “good parent.” Variants of the doctor as good parent occur again and again in art and literature. Illness often produces a regressed state in which a patient longs for the comfort, compassion, and care of a loving parent (transference). The popularity of alternative medicine in the era of the fifteen-minute medical visit is thought to be a response in part to the longer time the practitioner spends with the patient. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
Illness and the Family
Tate Gallery, London