Luke Fildes's The Doctor, Narrative Painting, and the Selfless Professional Ideal

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Since its introduction at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1891, Luke Fildes's painting The Doctor has earned that often hyperbolic adjective “iconic.” Immediately hailed as “the picture of the year” (“The Royal Academy,” “The Doctor,” “Fine Arts”), it soon toured the nation as part of a travelling exhibition, in which it “attracted most attention” (“Liverpool Autumn Exhibition”) and so affected spectators that one was even struck dead on the spot (“Sudden Death”). Over the following decades it spawned a school of imitations, supposed companion pictures, poems, parodies, tableaux vivants, an early Edison film, and a mass-produced engraving that graced middle-class homes and doctors' offices in Britain and abroad for generations to come and was reputedly the highest-grossing issue ever for the prominent printmaking firm of Agnew & Sons (Dakers 265–66). When Fildes died in 1927 after a career spanning seven decades and marked by many commercial successes and even several royal portraits, his Times obituary nonetheless bore “The Doctor” as its sub-headline (“Sir Luke Fildes”) and sparked a lively discussion of the painting in the letters column for several issues thereafter (“Points From Letters” 2, 4, 5 Mar. 1927). Although the animus against things Victorian in the early twentieth century shadowed The Doctor it never eclipsed it; by the middle of the century the painting was still being held up as the quasi-Platonic ideal of medical practice (“Bedside Manner,” “98.4”), gracing postage stamps, and serving ironically as the logo for both a celebration of Britain's National Health Service and a campaign against its equivalent in the United States. Appreciation of the painting in mid-century art historical circles was echoed in the popular press (“Victorian Art”), and The Doctor was singled out as a highlight of the reorganized Tate Gallery in 1957 (“Tate Gallery”), after which it settled into a sort of dowager status as a cornerstone of that eminent collection, where it is still in the regular rotation for public display. Since the mid-1990s it has been a recurring focus of discussion in both Medical Humanities journals and prominent medical professional organs such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal, where a steady stream of articles still cite it as a sort of prelapsarian benchmark for the role and demeanor of the ideal medical practitioner.



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