I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Norman Rockwell, but because of this book, I’m sold on him now! What prompted me to read it was a comment onI’ve never been a particularly big fan of Norman Rockwell, but because of this book, I’m sold on him now! What prompted me to read it was a comment on the call-in show “Indivisible Radio,” which aims to get Americans of diverse points of view to understand each other in these divided times. The comment was made on the show focusing on the urban/rural divide, and the caller said that she thinks that people who liked the slogan “Make America Great Again” were wishing for America to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Knowing as I do that art is often born of the artist’s unfulfilled wishes and becomes popular when the public shares those same wishes, I was not at all surprised to learn that, as Chapter Two puts it, Norman Rockwell’s was not “a Norman Rockwell childhood.” But what did surprise me was how much the 1960’s liberalized him. His life and work are a microcosm of America in the 20th century, and this book shows his evolution in thorough detail.
The first stop in the story is the Armory Show of 1913, which introduced abstract expressionism to the American art world. Rockwell was a young art student at that time, but he remained true to the classic teachings of realistic painting. That meant he wasn’t taken seriously as an artist even though he was a master craftsman. The book compares his famous “Doctor and Doll” to the work of Rembrandt. As I’m no judge of artistic technique, I take the author’s word on it.
The book then goes into his personal life: his conflicted marriages and the possibility that he had homosexual tendencies. Other Goodreaders contend that the author didn’t provide sufficient evidence for the latter, but as she had access to his personal writings and quoted from them, I say she did. You’ll have to read the book to decide for yourselves.
Alongside his personal journey, the book chronicles his most famous paintings, whether from the Boy Scout calendar, the Saturday Evening Post, or his later stuff in Look magazine. It would take too long for me to go through all these, but I do want to highlight his most political paintings because they were completely new to me.
The first is actually a series of four called “The Four Freedoms.” They were published during World War Two and symbolized the freedoms America was fighting to protect: “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Want,” and “Freedom from Fear.” Note that the latter two aren’t constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, but they’re certainly at the heart of current debate. In this age of automation and displaced workers, does every American citizen have a right to a guaranteed income? Is health care also a right? And how do we protect ourselves from future acts of terror?
The other painting I want to discuss is the most famous painting of the Civil Rights movement, “The Problem We All Live With.” It’s a point of my ignorance that I didn’t know of it until now, and ironically, it was while I was reading this book that a parody of it garnered some Internet rage. Someone did a painting that replaces Betsy Devos for the African American schoolgirl, Ruby Bridges. I don’t quite get the point, but I can understand why people were angry about it.
It was this painting that sold me on Norman Rockwell and made me think of him more kindly after having learned what an inattentive husband he was. The Saturday Evening Post covers were all of white people in idyllic small town scenes, but Rockwell didn’t dream of an all-white world. He was pro-integration, anti-Vietnam, and became friends with Arlo Guthrie, though he was many decades older. I especially loved reading about this because we are living in times very similar to the sixties, except now, the youth protesters of the sixties are themselves in their sixties, but they’re out there alongside the millennials and middle-aged Gen Xers, and all of us are getting inspiration from 74-year-old Bernie Sanders.
So, did Norman Rockwell want America to look like a Norman Rockwell painting? It’s not so simple. He may have loved small town life, but he was flexible enough to understand that the Four Freedoms are for everybody....more