Yesterday I was telling you about the life of Samuel Luke Fildes and featured one of his paintings An Al-Fresco Toilette, which he completed in 1889. I ended by saying I would return to his life later as it had a connection with another of his paintings, entitled The Doctor which he completed in 1891.
Yesterday I told you how he had given up his work on the Socialist magazine The Graphic and also changed his painting style from the Socialist Realism genre to become, along with his artist friend and brother-in-law, Henry Wood, leaders of the Neo-Venetian school of painting, which had become very popular. His popularity was in the ascendancy and he had become one of the best British painters of his time. Besides his Venetian-style paintings he completed a number of portraits including those of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He was elected as an associate of the Royal Academy in 1879 and eight years later an academician. He was knighted in 1906.
Fildes’ eldest son, Philip tragically died of tuberculosis in 1877. Fildes was devastated at this sad event and this terrible ordeal was captured in his painting The Doctor, which shows the medical man at the side of an ailing child. In 1949 this painting was used by the American Medical Association in its campaign against a proposal put forward by the President of America, Harry Truman to nationalise health care. Sixty-five thousand posters incorporating Fildes’ painting with words “Keep Politics Out of this Picture” were displayed around the country with the intention of raising public awareness of what the government was trying to do and by doing so, raising public scepticism for this new-fangled idea of nationalised health care.
The Doctor is probably the most famous painting by Luke Fildes. He made numerous sketches before he sat down to paint the picture. Fildes had travelled all over the Scottish highlands sketching the interiors of small cottages which he could maybe use in his painting. He even had an exact replica of the sick room made in his studio right down to the table cloth and lampshade tilted towards the sick child, as shown in the drawing by the artist Reginald Cleaver. This was actually published in the illustrated newspaper, The Graphic, which twenty-two years earlier had been the place of employment for the young aspiring artist.
In the painting we see the early morning light streaming in through the window on the left hand side. In some ways it is a time of jubilation as the child has survived through the night. It is a new dawn and maybe hope comes with it. In the background we see the mother, who is both relieved and exhausted from a sleepless night, laying her head on her hands on the table. Her husband places a comforting hand on her shoulder. In the foreground we have the doctor and the child both illuminated by sunlight. Look at the child. He is not lying on a comfortable bed but stretched across two wooden chairs which are maybe all the family could afford.
It is a poignant picture, the subject of which obviously brought memories flooding back to Fildes regarding the death of his son. It is also, in a way, a return to the Social Realism genre of painting which Fildes did in his early twenties, in the way it shows the poverty some people had to endure.