Focusing on Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Oculist’

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

In celebration of Norman Rockwell’s birthday (February 3, 1894), we hope that you enjoy this painting from the collection.

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894–1978)
The Oculist, 1956
Oil on canvas
30″h x 28″w  
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts       
Museum purchase, A0934,57.0003
 
Norman Rockwell became one of America’s best-loved artists on the basis of his illustrations for American magazine covers, including 322 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post that he created between 1916 and 1963. Many of Rockwell’s most famous paintings represent rites of passage in childhood, such as this freckle-faced boy being fitted with a pair of glasses. While the optician maintains a good-natured appearance, the young boy’s expression makes clear his frustration with the situation. With his baseball glove ready for action and a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap tucked into his belt, he would rather be on the playing field than indoors.
 
This original painting, which first appeared on the cover of the May 19, 1956 issue of the Post (see below), demonstrates Rockwell’s technical abilities in a way that is not easily conveyed in reproductions. The crisply defined edges of the furniture place the viewer in the sterile office, and the careful modeling of the figures conveys their body language and facial expressions. Rockwell has used a flat paint application throughout most of the painting, but in the foreground, built-up paint on the floor adds texture and liveliness. The Oculist embodies Rockwell’s remarkable capacity for exploring human nature, as well as his technical gift for capturing detail with precision.
 
The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts acquired this painting in 1957, through Director Bruce Etchison’s direct contact with the artist. In response to a letter from Etchison to Rockwell’s dealer, the artist wrote, “I am very pleased to know that you would like one of my pictures. Your museum sounds like just the sort of place where I would like to be represented.” Knowing that the Museum was able to offer only a fraction of the usual selling price for the painting, Rockwell continued, “Although I get kind of fat prices for my work, I would be very glad to sell you the Post Cover painting showing the boy being fitted for eye glasses (Mr. Stuart said this was the one you were interested in).” Etchison later revealed that he had inquired about The Oculist in particular because the boy reminded him of his own son. That sentiment represents the reason so many Americans have embraced the works of Norman Rockwell: his subjects remind them of the people and places they know best.
 
In 2021, The Oculist was conserved on the occasion of the museum’s 90th Birthday. The work was cleaned, very small paint losses on the canvas were in-painted and the work freshly varnished; glazing was also added to the painting for protection. Now, The Occulist’s condition and appearance have greatly improved and this iconic illustration has been preserved for the enjoyment of visitors for many years to come.

Saturday Evening Post cover
May 19, 1956