Through the eyes of 'The Oculist'

December 17, 2010|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • American artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1987) allowed the Washington County Fine Arts Museum to purchase "The Oculist," an oil on canvas he painted in 1956, for a generous price. The piece is part of the museum's permanent collection.
American artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1987) allowed the Washington County Fine Arts Museum to purchase "The Oculist," an oil on canvas he painted in 1956, for a generous price. The piece is part of the museum's permanent collection.

At a recent holiday event at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I chanced into a conversation with a young man from Clear Spring as we both stood in front of one of the museum's most beloved paintings: Norman Rockwell's "The Oculist."

The young man was astounded to discover such a national treasure in his hometown museum. He engaged me in animated conversation for 15 minutes as he recounted the many Norman Rockwell paintings he had seen and those he still wished to see.

Washington County's Rockwell painting was created by an artist whose reputation has grown exponentially since the work was created in 1956. The subject matter, though readily accessible and easy to understand, is laden with symbols of America during a golden age. Baseball, medical science and "father knows best" are all present within this painting.

A red-haired boy, perhaps 11 years old, sits perched on a chair in an oculist's office and is being fitted with glasses by the middle-aged eye specialist, who reaches across a table to precisely place the glasses on the boy's face.  

An oculist is the general name given to a medical professional who specializes in caring for the eyes and can be either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist depending on the type of training. Rockwell's oculist is a study in black, white and gray; he is wearing a white dress shirt, black necktie, white lab coat, gray pants and socks and polished black oxford shoes.  

In contrast, the boy is dressed haphazardly. He wears blue jeans (only worn in the 1950s for playtime, certainly not for school), a leather belt, a white sweatshirt with remnants of blue, perhaps accumulated on a house painting project, a collared shirt under the sweatshirt (probably left on after school), argyle dress socks and worn white canvas athletic oxfords.

Tucked into the boy's belt is a Brooklyn Dodgers' baseball hat, and in his hand is a well-worn baseball glove. In the background is the oculist's display of available eyeglass frames, reflecting the advent of modern style and materials (plastic) into eyewear that had for centuries been limited to gold, brass or tortoiseshell. The painting speaks to American values of clinical cleanliness, orderliness and frugality, practicality, and modernity. It presents the modern marvel of medical science. It contrasts the wisdom and good-natured aspect of the middle-aged oculist with impetuous boyhood.  

For the boy, the arrival of the glasses is the end of his baseball career and a rite of passage into adulthood. On the playground, he will now be "four eyes," no longer able to be a real, natural and free athlete. With a bemused and sympathetic smile, the oculist looks through his bifocals and back through time at the deeply frustrated and upset young boy. Yet, the oculist realizes that the new eyeglasses will give the boy improved eyesight, and thus the potential to become even better at his beloved game of baseball.

"The Oculist" painting was exhibited at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in June 1957, as part of an exhibition organized by The Curtis Publishing Co., of Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. 
Bruce Etchison, museum director at the time, wrote a heartfelt letter to the art editor of Curtis Publishing, making the case for how important it was for the museum to acquire a painting by Rockwell. He explained that the museum's goal was to build "a fine cross-section of American painting from approximately 1700 to the present day." He further reported that "our annual acquisition fund amounts to $418.00 per year," which would be woefully inadequate to acquire a Rockwell, but nevertheless asked for the editor's advice as to how the museum might proceed to acquire a Rockwell for Washington County.  

In less than one week, Rockwell had written a reply letter to Etchison, in which he offered "The Oculist" at a price that was essentially a gift to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

In his letter to Kenneth Stuart at Curtis Publishing, Etchison had said that "only through the interest of generous collectors and dealers have we been able to build our collection to its present proportion."

In the 63 years since Etchison wrote those words, the generosity of collectors, art dealers, artists, business people, educators, community volunteers and everyday citizens has continued to the present time.

As we approach year-end, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts wishes to express gratitude to the many people and organizations that have contributed to its mission, who have given works of art, funds, buildings, equipment, gardens, educational programs, exhibitions, musical programs, lectures, receptions, special events and countless other bounty to our beloved museum.  

Etchison passed away in December 2009. He was one of the defining leaders of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. In the coming year, as the art museum enters its 80th year of service to the community, the museum will pay tribute to the people who went before us, even as we look forward to the next 80 years of artful activities.

As we look back through time, we will hope to learn lessons to help us become an even better museum, better community, and better people.

The year will open with a memorial exhibition to Etchison, visionary museum director, artist, educator and art conservator. Etchison was a man devoted to the improvement of this art museum; his persuasive letter to Rockwell is but one example of his ability to garner good things for the people of this region.

To Etchison, we owe a debt of gratitude and thanks. In our busy lives, we must remember to enjoy the things that matter the most: the things that have been given to us freely. Rockwell left each of us a special gift when he made it possible for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts to acquire his painting in 1957.

Just as Rockwell's oculist knew that eyeglasses would give the boy improved eyesight, so did Etchison know that through art, we see the world better, and through the practice of looking at fine art, we acquire vision.

Rebecca Massie Lane is director of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. To find out more about the museum, visit

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