Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Least Favorite Rockwell

Norman Rockwell made some great paintings.  I'll post about my favorite Rockwell soon.  But I thought I'd talk first about my least favorite.  This idea came out of a recent conversation with a friend who told me her least favorite Rockwell is the image I discussed in Rockwell's Gay Sailors.  I mentioned my least favorite picture in turn.  But then a funny thing happened.  I realized not only that it was not as bad as I thought, but that I'd never properly looked at it before.

I believe that not really looking at Rockwell's paintings is a common fault among his detractors.  (I make that point in this post.)  But I'm not silly enough to make that mistake!  Or so I'd have said until recently.  Mea Culpa.

Rockwell painted a lot.  So it's no surprise that he made plenty of fair to middling pictures, but one has always stood out for me as the worst.  It's this one.

The picture was published in 1919 as a cover for the Literary Digest.  It is an illustration for "The Story of the Lost Battalion."  If you're unfamiliar with the Lost Battalion, you should definitely read about what happened--this was a very real episode which led to 7 Congressional Medals of Honor, and multiple Distinguished Service Crosses.  It's no wonder there was a cover story about it in a major magazine.

Based on the rank and decoration on the young soldier in this picture, I'd say we can imagine we're looking at Private Archie Peck, who repeatedly walked through machine gun fire to save some of his wounded brothers in arms.  (I doubt this is actually a picture of Peck.  He did not actually receive the Medal of Honor until December 1919, months after this picture was published.  But he seems to be the closest we've got, so I'm going to think of the soldier as Peck.)

I have always disliked this picture for a very simple reason.  It just seems so childish.  The heroic soldier comes home and regales his friends and neighbors with stories of his great adventure.  It appears to reflect a level of understanding of the horrors of war somewhat similar to the level I had as 10 year old boy, playing war with my buddies.

But when I started writing about the picture in my recent email exchange, I finally had to pay attention to it.  I've never bothered with that before--I just glanced, decided there wasn't anything worth seeing, and moved on.  But now that I take a little time with the picture, I noticed two things that I hadn't really noticed before.  First, something I literally didn't notice: the cane.  Maybe the soldier is sitting forward on the bench as he is because his injured leg forces him to adopt such a posture.  I don't know.  But it seems obvious that the cane belongs to young Peck.  And for whatever it's worth, I never even saw the cane until now.  (Never registered it, anyway.)  This man did not walk away from the war unscathed.

Second, the sailor's face is much more grave than I had noticed.  And he's not really looking at the soldier--he appears to be lost in his own thoughts.  Is he thinking about friends he lost in the war?  Is he thinking about his own horrific experiences in combat?  Is he supposed to be something of a stand-in for Rockwell himself, who served in the Navy, but never faced enemy guns--maybe a little jealous of his friend's opportunity to get into the action?  (Yes, that might be in some sense childish, but it's very common among young men in wartime, and there's no sense in pretending it doesn't exist.)  I don't know quite how to read this man's face, but the more I look at it, the more it pushes me away from my dislike of the picture.

So now I'm not sure that "The Lost Battalion" is my least favorite Rockwell.  I'm starting to kind of like it.  The boy still throws me off.  But I do love his upswept hair.  The soldier is telling a really hair-raising story, I guess.

And of course, my response to this picture has never really been fair.  I've never looked at it just in itself: I've always looked at it in comparison to Rockwell's splendid World War Two homecoming pictures, especially "Homecoming Marine."  It's hardly reasonable to compare other pictures to this one--few could hold up to it.

But the larger lesson here is the one I started out with.  Most people--whether they love Rockwell or hate him--make the same kind of mistake about his pictures that I'm admitting to.  They look at the picture quickly, make up their minds, and move on.  Maybe that's the way they look at other artists, too.  Maybe not.  Maybe they're so sure that Rockwell is not a "real artist" that they just feel they don't need to bother with actually looking.  Well, I can tell you that taking a little time to really look will generally be very profitable.  Put some effort into it.  Really look.  See them as though you're seeing them for the first time.  See what's really there.

If you spent twenty minutes writing about your least favorite Rockwell, do you think you'd still dislike it?

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