Remembering a Christmas painting

This column appeared at Christmas time last year. I’ve improved it some.

There hasn’t been a column I’ve written that couldn’t be improved — some more than others. This one is one of my favorites.

In the doctor’s lounge at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena hangs a painting. It’s too large for the wall upon which it is suspended, and its dimensions are not appropriate to the modest-sized quarters in which it is displayed.

As one would expect, the area is clean and contemporary, with furniture suitable for a hurried pause, not a long delay. The painting, however, portrays an extended deliberation in a disheveled, humble place.

One could conclude the painting is out of place.

It’s not.

This oil paintings’ background is simple, a simplicity subordinate to its meaning, one the foreground primarily conveys, but it, too, is simple.

The background was painted vaguely, rendering its forms out of focus, using strokes that appear to have employed a lesser skill than those that created its more salient foreground features — actualizations only a gifted hand could create.

But the areas painted in focus and those that aren’t were rendered by the same hand. To paint these differences then meld them into a work of emotional complexity required great skill — a work of genius.

It is.

I recently spent time with a local physician of some tenure. No medical charts were consulted, no prescriptions were renewed — my weight was not recorded. Instead, we drank coffee, took a walk, had a talk, and viewed this wonderful painting. It was the best doctor’s appointment I’ve ever had.

The painting is famous. Created in 1891 by the artist Luke Fildes, the original hangs in the Tate Gallery in London, England. If you wish to view it, Google “The Doctor Painting.” There, you will see a critically ill child, her parents grieving beyond measure. The father’s stoicism is apparent, though he is out of focus. The mother collapsed, her form discernible only in outline, her distress somehow fully portrayed.

The seriousness of this child’s illness is apparent. She lies on pillows of a makeshift sickbed — two wooden chairs brought together.

A doctor is there. He and the child are the focus of this work. The doctor was served a cup of tea in this family’s finest teacup, but its contents set neglected, cooling. All the physician’s attention is focused on the child. This focus, his knowledge, his presence, together with what he can see, feel, and hear, are all the tools he has to offer.

As with the artist’s young son a few years before this painting was created, this child, too, may die.

It is a painting that celebrates children as much as doctors. What can be worse than the death of a child? But what can move us more to respond with all we have to offer — to struggle with everything we know, in an attempt to prevent such crushing loss?

These struggles have brought us far, creating tools this doctor never dreamed of.

But others dreamed. Now we can hear, feel, and see so much more — even into our genetic code, learning of conditions that could harm us, leading to treatments that can cure us and vaccines that can protect us from pandemics that threaten us.

Cures that take no issue with what we believe, where we’re from, who we love, the color of our skin, or the humbleness of the conditions in which we lie or from where we pass.

Now, there is hope. Now, a child survives – now, a doctor can sometimes take a sip of tea.

There was another child. He brought hope before he died and, after, for those who believe.

Hope we all can cherish for neighborly love, for peace on Earth among all men, for the hope that, someday, we would treat others as we would have them treat us. To struggle against evil and the twins it reared: ignorance and intolerance.

Let us resolve this Christmas season not to let hope perish in political division. Let us pray that trust and reason survive and that the struggle continues for a day when all God’s children are loved, peace prevails upon the earth, and we can sip a cup of tea — together.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.


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