Friday, May 16, 2014

Rockwell's Apothecary

People often say that Norman Rockwell painted an idealized view of American life, but some of his paintings portray a more Dickensian perspective with a social commentary that says "something's wrong here." 
His painting "Apothecary" or "Pharmacist" shows a druggist mixing medicine with dirty and broken implements lying on a tattered old reference book. The sick boy has good reason to look doubtful. The glass on the framed diploma is cracked and the guy is smoking. His long underwear is showing under his sleeve, he's missing buttons, and he's got a lot of junk stuffed in his pockets. The pharmacist is not a bad guy; he's trying to help, but perhaps he's having a rough time himself.

By 1939 toward the end of the Great Depression, America looked a little the worse for wear, and terrible things were happening in Europe.

Here is Rockwell's color study for the image, possibly painted over a photostat of the charcoal drawing, kind of a trial run to make sure the colors and values were just what he wanted.


Dan said...

Hi James,

May I cordially offer an opposing viewpoint as to interpreting this picture?

It sounds to me like you're reading this as a veiled criticism of the appalling unavailability of good medical care in the U.S. in the late '30s. The shoddy clothing, cracked diploma frame, and worn tools and implements all speak of the incompetence of the apothecary, thus leading the boy to fear for his health and safety. To me, this seems somewhat implausible.

Now, in Dickens the urchins didn't go to the apothecary and get medicine. They died of tuberculosis while begging for bread in the filthy streets, while the aristocracy stood by indifferently. Whether this was strictly the truth of the matter in nineteenth-century London I wouldn't claim to know. But in America, even on the heels of the Great Depression, children could still procure medicine when they were seriously ill. Or so says this picture by Rockwell anyway.

Personally, I don't buy that Norman Rockwell idealized American culture. If that were so, I don't think his work would have stood the test of time. Like all good artists, Rockwell painted the truth. But he often chose to portray what might be (sometimes pejoratively) called "sentimental" truths--those positive truths that engender optimism, the "warm, fuzzy" truths. The reason so many people respond to Rockwell's illustrations with nostalgia is that those illustrations recall to us things that were actually good about American life back then. This is called "idealism" only because Rockwell decided not to portray the bad things, perhaps because he saw no point in dwelling on those things.

Later in his life, Rockwell painted unpleasant truths. For example, there's "The Problem We All Live With," about racism in America. But even then, to my way of thinking, he approached the picture with sensitivity, and with a certain underlying sense of optimism. It was bad that a black girl needed a police escort to go to an integrated school, but then at least she was going to an integrated school, which was a positive step. In general, Rockwell seemed to feel that if things weren't perfect in America, that shouldn't prevent us from "counting our blessings." He often seemed to be reminding us of just how good we really had it here. In his "Freedom from Want," we see a group of people celebrating Thanksgiving. A huge roast turkey is being laid on the table, and the guests are paying no attention to it. Having never experienced true poverty, they don't quite see what's so special about what they have.

In this picture we see an apothecary who has been affected by the Depression as much as his patient. He's wearing long underwear to keep his heating bills low. His clothing is somewhat tattered. The tools of his trade have seen better days. The glass of his diploma frame has cracked. But he's not a quack. Notice that Rockwell specifically put the diploma with the cracked frame in the picture. The man has a diploma, even if he can't afford a good frame.

If this is a social commentary, it seems to me to be saying that, unlike in Dickens' London, there are no "haves" and "have nots" here. The boy and the apothecary have both been affected by the economy. Yet they both go on living. The apothecary goes on practicing. The sick children get medicine and get well. Okay, so this was not always true in America, but it was true enough often enough that the picture is not dishonest. It has simply selected something positive to show us. It reminds us that even though we may have to turn the heat down and wear tattered clothing, our children still get medicine. Even in the late '30s, the standard of living in America was probably one of the highest in the world, and if anything it seems that Rockwell was out to remind us of that fact in this picture.

Megan said...

I agree with Dan on this one. My family doctor, growing up, always smoked a pipe in his office. I see this apothecary doing the best he can with old equipment. Perhaps the child got him out of bed to mix medicine, and he does it happily. He's the trusted advisor, he is one of them, not holding himself above them. I this image, I see kindness, caring, and familiarity. Perhaps the "dirt" that Rockwell uses is meant to portray the concept of well-used.

CC said...

Hi! I'm just really glad you posted this! I hadn't thought about the "whys", I just enjoyed the work. Thank you for sharing it no matter the reason!

Paul Sullivan said...

From the vantage point of 1939, Rockwell was was taking a nostalgic look back at the country apothecary of bygone days. This cover had nothing to do with the apothecaries of 1939.—PERIOD.

At about this same general time frame, Rockwell did a cover of a country mother or aunt giving medicine to a young boy. The picture and its details are right out of the 19th century. Both of these covers look like they relate to Tom Sawyer's day—and they do. It should be remembered that about this same general time—in the late 1936 to 1940—that Rockwell illustrated Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn". He spent time in Hannible Missouri doing a lot of research during 1935.

Rockwell's illustrated version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1936. The illustrated version of Huckelberry Finn was a couple of years later—1938 or 1939. The illustrations were a great success and Rockwell was very pleased with them himself. I am convinced this was a "Mark Twain" version of the old country apothecary.

The year 1939 seems ancient to us here in the 21st century. However, every town had fairly modern drug store on every other corner. And, in 1939 there were a lot of people who remembered the old small town ways of 40 or 50 yeaqrs before.

Regarding the notion that Rockwell painted an idealised world: Rockwell painted pictures to sell magazines. They had to appeal to a mass market. To do this he employed humor and occasionally nostalgia. It was not until after he left the Saturday Evening Postthat he painted work with a social commentary.

This man hasn't been dead all that long and we are missinturpeting his work.

Paul Sullivan

James Gurney said...

Dan, it's good to see Rockwell's work encourages such discussion, but I didn't say it was a veiled criticism about medical care in general: that's putting words in my mouth. I was simply pointing out details that are manifest in the painting.

My observations about the Apothecary are based on notes by the senior curator at the Rockwell Museum, and on Rockwell's autobiography. Rockwell discusses how the writings of Dickens influenced his work from an early age. His work, like that of Dickens, always interpreted the world through specific characters and situations. I've listened to the actual audio recordings Rockwell made about his life which the autobiography was based on, and it's quite interesting to hear the details of the world he grew up in.

Paul, of course you're right that the scene is set earlier than 1939, but he painted costume pictures very consciously against the backdrop of his times, and magazine covers of historical scenes very much played against the contemporary zeitgeist. After Rockwell's studio fire and after WWII, he lost a lot of his costumes, and he said that the national appetite for such pictures dried up. It's harder to image such a picture working on a major magazine cover in the 1950s.

Dan said...

Paul: Interesting observations. But then surely there was a personal side to Rockwell--something in his illustrations that came from his own observations of the world he lived in, something apart from the goal of selling magazines, or from the literal subject or time period being depicted?

I suppose James and I have offered two different hypotheses regarding what might be the subtext of this particular painting, assuming that even while just doing his job as an illustrator, underneath there may have been an artist with "something to say."

On the other hand, although I wasn't around back then, my mother grew up in Montana in the '40s, and she spent a significant portion of her childhood living without electricity, let alone a drugstore on every corner.

Best regards,

Unknown said...

Hi James~
Take a look at 'It's a Wonderful Life'... there's Mr Gower, the pharmacist. It seems very likely that Mr. Rockwell gave the illustrated image that found its way to life in this film.

Dan said...

James: Fair enough, but we seem to have seen the same details and attached very different interpretations to them.

You mentioned, I think, that the subtext might be a "social commentary," which seems to me to mean that these details, taken together, add up to some statement about society. And a social commentary that is "Dickensian," must surely be a criticism of society, mustn't it? A statement of "something's wrong here"?

Well, then, what is the painting criticizing about society? The apothecary who smokes, wears shoddy clothes, uses dirty implements to mix medicines; the boy's apprehension, which you seem to have interpreted to mean his apprehension brought on by all this shoddiness.

These specific aspects, when construed as a "social commentary" (i.e. widened into a general statement about society); what do they criticize? What's "wrong here" if not the quality of the medical care?

Please, if I sound argumentative, that's not the spirit in which I'm offering this question. I mean it as a genuine question.

I didn't think I was putting words in your mouth. I thought I was restating in a terse way what you had said in your post. So maybe I'm a little shocked to find that I've missed the mark so widely, and quite interested in figuring out just how I managed to do that.

Sincere Regards,

lee kline said...

I am just happy that Norman Rockwell is again being taken seriously. When I was in school in the late 1950s - early 1960s - art professors ALWAYS held up Rockwell as the worst that an artist could do. Thank your Mr. Gurney.

Corey said...

This is one of my favorites of his. Saw it in the Norman Rockwell Museum and had to buy a print!

Rich said...

May be my subjective impression, but the overall colors here, the doublet, the yellowed book, the liquids appear at bit sickish to me. In contrast to the apothecary's very healthy teint, and the pale boy's striking red glove of course.
Does Mr. Rockwell convey a hidden color message here?

Unknown said...

A small detail: This gentleman appears to be practicing in the State of New York. I recognized the state seal on the license (diploma), and found an example of a similar license from the period on a collectibles site:

Rich said...

fantasizing, theorizing, interpreting away;-) just further occured to me that all those "sickish" colors culimnate in that pitch dark black lotion administered to the poor boy:
What has been Rockefeller's approach to allopathy? Who knows? A dark lotion of allopathy versus a light one of homeopathy?

Did Mr.Rockwell believe in homeopathy?

Let's leave it to conjecture and history:-)