An artist seems to be defined by one piece that resonates through generations. Masters such as da Vinci and Monet bring to mind a woman’s mysterious smile and water lilies, respectively. Grant Wood’s name may not elicit a painting, but nearly everyone has seen American Gothic (1930), a stoic portrayal of domesticity, labor and gender roles of America in that era. Few may recognize Wood’s lithograph Family Doctor (1940).
Grant Wood (1891-1942) was a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He moved to Chicago in 1913, and enrolled in drawing sessions at the Art Institute of Chicago while operating a jewelry and metalwork shop. When his mother became ill in 1919, Wood returned home to care for his family, taking up a grammar school teaching position. In 1920, Wood ventured to Paris during the summer, returning three years later to study at the Academie Julian. Having lived a bohemian life in Paris, Wood returned home to Iowa sporting a beard and impressionist style of painting.
After the exhibition of American Gothic, Wood became well-known, and began the Regionalism movement. The regionalists promoted artists to rekindle their Midwestern roots, as well as encouraging younger, Midwestern artists. John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton are two notable artists Wood inspired to join the group.
During the Great Depression, Wood adopted lithography, and produced nineteen lithographs between 1937-1941. These lithographs were distributed by Associated American Artists, a populist organization which attracted regionalists and marketed low-cost prints to middle class Americans. Wood at this time produced Family Doctor.
The doctor in Family Doctor was modeled after Wood’s personal physician, Dr. A. W. Bennett. Dr. Bennett practiced in Iowa City. The lithograph was made for Abbott Laboratories, who gave free copies of the lithograph to physicians.
The lithograph shows a doctor and his tools: a stethoscope, thermometer, stopwatch, and, most importantly, his hands. A physician’s compassion is felt through the healing touch of their hands, and prior to advent of modern medicine, the most important tool in a physician’s bag was his hands. Since all the viewer can observe is the doctor’s hands, the hands assume an intrinsic character of their own. Each one holding an object oriented differently, a thermometer in the right and stethoscope in the left, as if the hands are thinking and know the task ahead.
The viewer can only imagine the patient who is awaiting the healing touch of this physician. We can envision a time when we ourselves sat waiting for the physician to examine us, with their back to us as they prepped their equipment. The monochromatic property of the work adds depth and shadow, increasing the dramatic appeal and rustic feel, a feature regionalists would have embraced.
I am only a medical student, but Wood’s portrayal is an important reminder about medicine and the role of physicians today. Technology may outpace our abilities to memorize and diagnose, but it is the healing warmth of our soft hands that cannot be replaced by rigid silicon chips and cold LCD screens. Physicians can improve patient health by listening and expressing compassion, alongside diagnostic testing and imagining.
Family Doctor is considered Wood’s last artistic work. In November of 1941, Wood became seriously ill, and Dr. Bennett referred Wood to the University of Iowa Hospital. Inoperative pancreatic cancer was discovered, and Wood passed away on February 12, 1942, hours before his 51st birthday. Prior to his death, Wood commented on this piece saying,
“Let this be a tribute to the skill and artistry of the Family Doctor from one who for many years has known him well, sometimes in his professional role, occasionally as a critic, always as a friend.”
P.S. Another lithograph of Wood’s, General Practitioner (1936), also portrayed just a physician’s hands during a pulse reading. Have a look!