BY JIM HALL

Doctors are prominent in the Norman Rockwell paintings that go on display here this weekend--and their depiction says much about the artist who drew them.

Rockwell's doctors are Santa figures in three-piece suits, genial men with round bellies and the time and inclination to check on the health of a child's doll.

But even in the early 20th century when Rockwell painted many of these figures, his vision was more wish than reality--a longing for an earlier era of love and caring.

"Rockwell wasn't painting the way life really was. He was painting a fictional construct," said Joanna Catron, curator at Gari Melchers Home and Studio in Stafford County.

The Melchers museum will host "Picturing Health: Norman Rockwell and the Art of Illustration." The display opens Saturday for a three-month visit.

Featured will be 11 large-scale Rockwell oil paintings from the Pfizer collection, and 41 works by other illustrators. All focus on various aspects of health care.

The travelling exhibit was organized more than two years ago by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. The Gari Melchers Home and Studio is its fourth stop.

Catron said Rockwell was a good fit for the Melchers museum since both men painted in a realistic style and enjoyed telling stories through their pictures.

"The most obvious reason" for hosting the exhibit, Catron added, "is that you can't find a more popular, more enduring artist."

Rockwell (1894-1978) is best known for the 321 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, and for the thousands of other paintings and illustrations he did over a 60-year career.

The Melchers exhibit features the advertising work Rockwell did between 1929 and 1962 for Upjohn and Lambert, pharmaceutical companies, and American Optical, an eyeglass maker.

Many of the paintings were featured in the companies' ads but do not contain their products. Instead, the sponsors understood the reflected goodwill they would enjoy by being associated with Rockwell.

"They knew that his imagery, his signature, his whole Rockwell persona was an implicit stamp on their product," Catron said.

For example, Upjohn wanted to portray the doctors in its ads as trusted, benevolent professionals.

Rockwell's 1938 painting "Doc Melhorn and the Pearly Gates" did just that for them. In that painting, the doctor has placed a stethoscope to the bare back of a young boy while his mother holds the boy's shoulders.

"The doctor has a tenderness in dealing with the little boy that is very much what we would hope to see in any physician," said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Rockwell's personal physician was the model for his 1954 painting "Doctor and Boy Looking at Thermometer."

"The boy looked worried but not because he had a temperature. He was afraid that he wouldn't have a temperature, and that he'd have to go to school," Plunkett said.

In that scene, the boy is in his pajamas and has his arm on the physician's shoulder. The physician has the beginnings of a smile. He seems to understand the importance of his diagnosis.

"In Rockwell's art, the doctor is definitely a gentle, intelligent force who wants nothing but the best for his patients," Plunkett said.

Rockwell's work for the health care industry reflects the same values that he portrayed in all of his illustrations: optimism, honesty, humor and a belief in the goodness of people.

"He conveys very positive messages about humanity," Plunkett said. "We still want to believe that the qualities that Rockwell embodied in his work are still essential."

Jim Hall: 540/374-5433

Email: jhall@freelancestar.com

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