Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rockwell and Indians

As our need for oil-fueled "economic development" puts us, yet again, into conflict with American Indians, I'm prompted to write a little bit about Rockwell's depictions of Indians.  One of his very best pictures has been featured on this blog before (and no doubt will be featured here again).  It's "Glen Canyon Dam."

The story here is that the Department of the Interior hired Rockwell to paint their new dam.  Rockwell wasn't interested in painting stuff, he was interested in painting people.  So he put people in the picture.  It's hard to believe the Department of the Interior could have been super happy with the result.  It's hardly a celebration of their triumph.  The connection to the pipeline in the link above is pretty obvious.

Not all of Rockwell's paintings were quite so majestic.  Here's a good example of a "Rockwellian" light take on what is, in fact, a serious matter.  If you can't see the image well enough to make it out, the man is holding an advertising flyer urging him to "See America First."

It's not hard to see where Rockwell's sympathy lies, but on the other hand, this is hardly biting commentary.

In another not-well-known image, Rockwell depicts a pioneer woman in the act of fighting Indians.  In this case, the sympathy is all with the settler, clearly.

No Indians actually appear, but you can see an arrow in the upper left, making clear what this scene is about.  If this looks like a very weird painting, that's because it's not a painting.  This is a Peter Rockwell bronze--Peter is one of Norman's sons--but Norman made the drawing on which the piece is based.

Conflict with the Indians isn't always quite so grave.

This kind of image is what a lot of people think of, when they think of Rockwell.  I'm not saying he didn't do (a lot) of stuff like this.  He did.  But don't let it color your assessment of him too much.  It's far from all he did, and it's obviously not the best he did.  (Again, see here.)

There are also quite a few pictures of Indians in Rockwell's early illustrations in Boys Life, for stories like "The Trail to El Dorado," and "Scouting With Daniel Boone."  These images aren't easily found online!  But you can see one of them here.  The link will bring you to page 5 of the magazine.  Scroll up to page 4.

And one last Indian picture: "Family Tree."

Look carefully.  This Post cover was published in 1959.  As a "costume" pictures, it was pretty isolated by that time.  While Rockwell did many, many historical costume pictures up until about 1939, he virtually ceased after that.  The last pure costume Post cover is this one:

After this, costumes show up rarely, and kind of incidentally.  For example, there's a Willie Gillis cover from 1944 that shows several generations of Gillis's forefathers.  There's "Framed," from 1946, which shows an old painting of a man in Revolutionary War era costume.  (I'm not clear on the actual date of this painting.  It was published in the Post in 46, but the Definitive Catalog dates the oil study for the painting to 1941.  That could be a misprint, of course.)  Then we jump to "The Art Critic," from 1954, which, likewise, includes a couple of old paintings with costumed characters.  The final Post cover with a historical costume is "Lunch Break," from 1962, which includes several uninhabited suits of armor.  I'm not sure it actually counts as a costume if nobody's wearing it!  Prior to 1939, I'd estimate you don't ever go a year without at least one historical costume picture showing up--and not incidentally, either, such as in a picture within the picture.

Anyway, all that longwinded stuff is to say that the "Family Tree" picture, with its historical costumes playing such a prominent role, is more like early Rockwell than later, WWII-and-later-era Rockwell.  But I take it the point is clear enough: it's a kind of "we're all just folks" thing.

Which is a lovely thought as far as it goes.  But, on the other hand, when it comes to things like American culture building our massive projects in ways and places that are likely to harm some of those folks--generally, the impoverished or powerless--we're not all just folks.  As Chesterton put it

The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. 

It would be nice if our government would set itself to doing a better job of governing.

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