Thursday, February 26, 2015

Was Norman Rockwell's Art Really Rockwellian?

Bill Millis and his family have made a generous donation to The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA: namely the cute and sentimental picture often called “Puppy Love.” 

It’s a wonderful gesture on the part of the Mills family (my North Carolina neighbors), and I’m sure the museum staff is overjoyed to have the famous image on its way to them.  Still, as a Rockwell fan, I have to say—I can’t wait for this picture to get out of the news.  This picture strongly reinforces a widely-believed set of notions about Rockwell.  To wit: Rockwell painted cute kids doing cute stuff with their cute dogs.  Or their cute grandfathers.  Or with other cute kids.  There’s nothing deep or challenging about the art.  Nothing very interesting, either.  Rockwell is exactly what the word “kitsch” was made for.  Sentiment, artificiality, depthless nostalgic schmaltz.

That’s Rockwell’s public image, no doubt.  The trouble with this image is that it’s just false.  

Now, admittedly, Rockwell did paint plenty of mere cute pictures of cute kids.  And these images are endlessly reproduced on calendars and coffee mugs and jigsaw puzzles and all variety of knick-knacks.  Take all that for what you like.  I’ll admit to enjoying many of the cute pictures.  Take this one, for example, which is delightful: 

But contrary to the received view, Rockwell painted an awful lot of stuff that’s far from cutesy and sentimental.  Probably the most famous example is his work “The Problem We All Live With.”  
This is Rockwell’s take on Ruby Bridges, who, in 1960, was the first black child to attend a previously all-white school in New Orleans.  This was ordered by a court, and not well received by many of the white parents, who protested outside the school (and who pulled their own children out).  Ruby Bridges was indeed escorted to and from school by US Marshals, to protect her from the angry crowds outside.

“The Problem” does not stand alone.  Rockwell made many other paintings that simply won’t fit into the little box with the “Rockwellian” label on it.  Take a few moments to look a little more carefully at what Rockwell really painted—rather than what you think he painted—and you’ll see some surprises.  I’m not claiming that he painted a great deal of darkness and misery.  He didn’t.  I’m claiming that he did not paint only a superficial, sentimental world.  It follows from this that the standard-issue dismissals of Rockwell as a mere kitsch painter are simply not defensible.  Here, as a start, are ten Rockwells that help to undercut this kitschy image.

10. “Glen Canyon Dam”

In 1969, the US Department of the Interior hired Rockwell to paint its grand new achievement.  Rockwell flew out to view the dam, but hesitated.  He told his employers that he was a people painter: if they just wanted a picture of the dam itself, they could find a better person for the job.  Then he asked if he could include some people in his painting.  The answer was ‘yes,’ and the result is what you see here.  Probably not what the government was looking for.  The dam had been built primarily on land obtained from Navajo Indians, many of whom went on to work on the dam’s construction.  Like many such projects, however, it proved highly controversial, and by 1969 the environmental and cultural effects were coming to be widely recognized.  Rockwell’s sympathies seem pretty clear here.  The Indians are in the foreground, standing over the dam, taking up much more space than the dam, and providing all the real interest in the image.  Which is more important?

9. “The Long Shadow of Lincoln”

This was published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1945, as an illustration that accompanied a Carl Sandburg poem of the same title.  The soldier in the center is an amputee, and that’s a military grave marker there on the right of the image.  This tone of the picture is definitely somber, which suits the poem well.

8. “Murder in Mississippi”

This is a 1965 painting done for Look Magazine.  Look actually published an oil sketch of the picture, rather than the final, polished oil painting.  The image depicts the murder of 3 civil rights activists.  In 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were part of an effort to register blacks to vote in small town Mississippi.  One night, they heard about a church arson and drove out to investigate.  They were intercepted by a deputy sheriff, who apparently helped the local Klan drive the young men out into the countryside, where they were murdered and buried.  Rockwell’s grasp of the reality of the situation is profound: the murderers are mere shadows—a lack of light.  Only the three young men matter.

7. “Huck and Pap”

Here’s a nice cute kid picture!  Only there’s something a bit unusual about this kid.  There’s no fun in his eyes.  Just fear.  This is Huckleberry Finn, discovering his father has returned.  Pap, of course, has learned of Huck’s discovery, with Tom Sawyer, of a bundle of money.  He is a menacing figure in the book, and Rockwell manages to capture this sense of menace in this picture.  Rockwell illustrated both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the late 30’s, and the illustrations are among his best.  The pictures for the exuberant Tom Sawyer are full of silly youthful hijinks, just like the book.  But the pictures for Huckleberry Finn capture that book’s much more adult and sometimes even oppressive feel. 

6. “Due Date”

This 1938 Post cover seems like a light picture of an artist trying to come up with an idea.  But it may be that there’s much deeper meaning lurking in the picture: it may be that there is a hidden reference to an abortion.  In her biography of Rockwell (Random House, 2001), Laura Claridge argued for this interpretation, suggesting that Rockwell and Mary had traveled to England that year in order for Mary to have an abortion.  If it were true that when he painted this, Rockwell had recently been involved in an abortion, then the picture suddenly takes on a whole new layer of meaning.  “Due date,” when pregnancy is on the horizon, means one thing.  “Due date,” when an assignment must be completed, means something quite different.  If Claridge is right about the Rockwell abortion, then it just makes good sense to think this picture has something to do with it. (In my opinion, the evidence for this supposed event is very weak.  In other words, my own opinion is that there’s no good reason to believe that Mary actually had an abortion.  And as such, I am not convinced that this picture really does hide this deeper meaning.  But I include it here anyway because if Claridge is right, then this is a pretty extreme case—a picture that really seems just comical, but that turns out to hide a very dark secret.)

5. “Homecoming Marine”

This is one of those deceptive images that you can mistake for a happy little homecoming story, until you take a minute to really look at it.  The young man in the center is just back from the war, obviously, and the newspaper clipping tacked to the wall shows he has acquitted himself well.  The local men and boys gather round to hear his war stories, only there’s no “shoot ‘em up” excitement in this picture.  It’s as though he tried to start telling these men what it had been like, but simply found he couldn’t.  Everyone is speechless.  Some of the older men had probably been through World War I, and were able to understand, to some extent.  The image is deeply moving and intense. 

4. “Solitaire”

I find this to be one of the saddest of Rockwell’s Post covers.  I have not seen the original, at least not to my recollection, so I can’t be entirely sure about this—the reproductions I have seen haven’t been of the highest quality—but it seems almost certain to me that the man is not wearing a wedding ring.  So there he sits in his hotel, on the road, all alone—but he isn’t looking forward to getting home to his family.  He may have a home, but he’s just as alone there as he is here in this cheap hotel.  It’s not a romantic image of the free and easy life of the traveling salesman.  It’s a sad, lonely little picture of a middle-aged man with nothing but his work.  As I said at the outset, I’m not claiming too much for these images.  I’m not suggesting this is like one of Goya’s masterworks of horror and abandonment.  But the Rockwell remains a real picture of loneliness and isolation.

3. “Orphan Train”

Here is an illustration for a 1951 story published in Good Housekeeping.  I have never read the story, but I think I can more or less get the gist from this picture.  I find the image anything but cute—I find the posture of the lady, presumably hoping to adopt an orphan, tremendously affecting.  The little basket of goodies at her feet, the slight lean forward, the hesitant motion with her hands, the upraised face as she meets the boy who she hopes will soon be her son, and all that vast stretch of green in between them: it is all very powerful.  

2. Nude

This is a picture of Jackie Wells, who posed for Rockwell in an art class he was taking, shortly after the death of his second wife.  This is one of very few nudes Rockwell made, apart from his early days in art school of course.  He did make some other images that incorporated nudes (including two—more, if you count a nude statue as a nude—that made it onto the cover of the Post).  But I know of no painting in Rockwell’s complete body of work that is simply a nude, apart from this painting of Jackie Wells.  It stands alone.

In one sense, though, it does not stand alone—it is an unpublished painting, just one that Rockwell made for his own purposes.  The other images I’ve included in this little list have all been published.  But there’s not necessarily any good reason to stick to the paintings that Rockwell actually sold.  If you take a look through Rockwell’s unpublished images, you’ll find some additional surprises.  Just two of them, I’ll throw in here as bonuses

Yes, that is a Rockwell. It’s called “Blood Brothers.”  The next picture is “Pollution.”  (Rockwell fans will recognize it as a play on an earlier, and cheerier, Rockwell image.)

1. “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Doctor”

This is another one of those images, like “Homecoming Marine,” that might at first just seem cozy and sweet.  And maybe it is.  But there’s something awfully sad about the poor little boy way off on the right.  Even the doctor’s dog is closer to the family than this young fellow is.  This picture was published in the Post in 1947, which suggests that the mother and father had been separated by the War for some years, thus explaining the significant age gap between the two children here.  If Dad was off at war for several years, that means the older boy was home with Mom for quite awhile.  Then Dad came home, and then the new baby arrived.  It doesn’t take some kind of crazy Freudian Theory to think that the older son might be made to feel a bit set aside—cut off, isolated—by all these new arrangements.  And it doesn’t take an awful lot of crazy Art Critic tomfoolery to notice that the gun on the wall is pointed right at Dad’s head. 

Don’t take me wrong, I’m the last person to suggest that Rockwell is trying to do anything really ugly with this picture.  But I do think that he has observed some kind of pain in the midst of this happy family, and has brilliantly built it into his picture.  As I say, you might not pick up on any of this right away, and you might even think, after reading this, that I’m just another lunatic art critic.  But I do hope you’ll pause a bit over this picture and make an effort to see more than just a warm cozy image of a family at the old fashioned doctor’s office.  Maybe Rockwell has done more here than you’d assume.  Maybe he does that pretty often.

The upshot of all this is: don’t make up your mind about Rockwell’s work until you’ve taken some time to actually look at it—apart from the few sentimental and lovable images that you see on Norman Rockwell calendars or collector plates.  I think the vicious condemnations of these cute pictures are terribly overblown.  There’s no harm in cute pictures.  And while “Puppy Love” is far from my favorite Rockwell, I can’t quite bring myself to see it as a bad thing.  But whatever you think of these cute pictures, they’re not all there is to Rockwell.  There’s a great deal more to see, if you take the trouble to look. 

What you should not do, as a result of reading this little essay, is assume that behind the generally positive and happy exterior of Rockwell lurks a dark and brooding presence, who sees the world as a hateful place, worthy of contempt and condemnation.  No, Rockwell is clearly a philosophical optimist.  Nothing here contradicts that.  But optimism is far from utopianism, and it’s certainly not a falsification.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad that you are doing this undertaking of writing about Norman Rockwell, as I agree with you that a lot of his work ought to be given serious consideration. By the way, I have the image of "Lift Up Thine Eyes" from a Saturday Evening Post framed, and hanging on a wall in my home, and I was just wondering about it to look it up. That is how I found your blog spot.